The Gift of Tongues

(Substance of an address given at Elim Hall, Cape Town, S. Africa)

IN view of the interest which is being manifested by a great number in many countries in the ‘ Gift of Tongues,’ and of the fact that there are those who insist that its possession is the God-ordained proof of having been baptized in, or of having received the Holy Spirit, it is incumbent upon us that we should in an impartial and an unbiased manner, ‘ inquire and search diligently’ into the Scriptures as to the place this gift had in Christian life and testimony in Apostolic days, and what place, if any, it should have in the worship and witness of the churches today.

I propose that our inquiry should be pursued along four avenues, viz. :

(1) its historical manifestations;

(2) its relative value ;

(3) the regulations governing its exercise ; and

(4) its purpose, as a sign-gift.

(1) The Gift anditsHistorical Manifestations

These are not many, but they are deeply significant. They are connected with Jerusalem (Acts 2) ; Caesarea (Acts, chaps. 10 & 11) ; Ephesus (Acts 19. 1-7) and Corinth (1 Cor. chaps. 12-14).

Jerusalem, Acts 2. Here we have the record of the ‘ giving of the Spirit,’ the coming of the Comforter, in keeping with the promise of the Lord (John 16. 7 ; Luke 24. 49; Acts 1. 1-8). The fulfilment of this promise was contingent upon the exaltation of Christ. It ushered in a new era in world history. It marked the formation of the Church as the “Body of Christ “ by the baptism in the Spirit (Acts 1. 5 ; 1 Cor. 12. 12, 13), and the inauguration of the preaching of the gospel among all nations. The experience detailed in Acts 2 was unprecedented and unparalleled. It was to the Apostles “ whom He had chosen “ that the words in Acts 1 were spoken. In con-trast to the words “ Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples “ (1. 15), it is stated that “Peter stood up with the eleven “ (2. 14). It is evident, therefore, that they, as the Lord’s chosen witnesses, constituted the group of whom it is said that “ they were all with one accord in one place “ (2. 1); and “ they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…" (v. 4). All who spoke were recognized as Galileans (2. 7; cp. 1. 11 ; 13. 31). Consequent upon being filled with the Spirit they began to speak in tongues. In accordance with what is taught in 1 Cor. 14. 2 that “ he that speaketh in a tongue, speaketh not unto man, but unto God," it is not said that they preached in tongues to the gathered company. They were declaring the wondrous works of God, doubtless rehearsing O.T. portions in the languages and dialects of the Jews and Proselytes gathered at Jerusalem for the feast. News of this soon spread, and the multitude came together and were confounded, amazed, and marvelled, and were in doubt, asking “What meaneth this?”

This experience was singular. There is no record of it being repeated, or of anything similar to it. It was limited to the one occasion and to the twelve only. There is no hint that the receiving of the Spirit by the 3,000 on that day was accompanied by speaking in tongues. If it was intended to be (he hall-mark of a genuine spiritual experience, it should have been given to them and recorded for our learning.

This experience was singular. There is no record of it being repeated, or of anything similar to it. It was limited to the one occasion and to the twelve only. There is no hint that the receiving of the Spirit by the 3,000 on that day was accompanied by speaking in tongues. If it was intended to be (he hall-mark of a genuine spiritual experience, it should have been given to them and recorded for our learning.

Caesarea, Acts 10 to 11. 18. Peter compares what happened at the house of Cornelius to what occurred at the beginning (11. 15, 16). This clearly implies that speaking in tongues did not commonly or invariably accompany the reception of the gospel message. It was an unique occasion. It was the first time for the glad tidings to be preached to Gentiles, and the event demon-strated to Peter and to them that “ were of the circum-cision “ (11. 2) that Jew and Gentile are now on an equal footing. The wall of partition had been broken down. On a later occasion, when referring to this, Peter said: “God … made no distinction between us and them “ (15. 9, R.V.). Here again we have the record of an experi-ence which was unique, equally as unprecedented and un-paralleled as the one in Acts 2. It should be noted that when Peter said that “ God gave them the like gift “ he was referring to God having “ given them the Holy Spirit “ (cp. 11. 17 and 15. 8). The word rendered “ gift “ here is not the word ‘ charismata,’ which is the one used when the reference is to the gifts distributed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12. 4). Hence the words “ the like gift “ do not refer to the gift of tongues, but to the gift of the Spirit.

Ephesus, Acts 19. 1-7. This company of disciples had only known the baptism of John. They had not heard of Pentecost, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. In this way their experience was also unique. It is not duplicated anywhere in the Acts. Their defective experi-ence was due to a defective understanding. They had not heard the “ gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4.3,4. R.V.). On hearing and believing this they were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.

In connection with these three it is well to draw atten-tion to a principle established in the Scriptures as to the ways of God in government. Only upon Sodom and Gomorrah did fire fall from heaven. Their destruction is set forth as an example (2 Pet. 2. 6 ; Jude 7). Only one Israelite was put to death by stoning for breaking the Sabbath, and only one family (Achan’s) for coveting. In the N.T., only Ananias and Sapphira met with such summary judgment. By these singular acts of judgment God’s attitude to the sin thus marked out is indicated. Simi-larly the unique experiences, associated with which is the speaking in tongues, illustrate and confirm the truth that national, racial and social barriers are not recognized in this age of grace.

Corinth, 1 Cor. chaps. 12-14. In these important chapters the gift of tongues is listed as one of the nine gifts catalogued in 12. 7-11 and 28-30. In contrast with the three cases in the Acts, in Corinth it was exercised in the assembly. We read of speaking (14. 2, 6, 13, 19), praying (14. 14, 15), and praising (vv. 15, 16) in tongues. It is very clear, however, that the gift was not possessed by all, Whereas all had been baptized in the one Spirit, and were all made to drink of one Spirit. (12. 12, 13), the gifts were distributed severally to each one according to the Spirit’s sovereign will and pleasure. To one person was given one gift and to another person another gift (12. 7-11). Just as the answer to the question “Are all Apostles ?" must be in the negative, so to the question “ Do all speak with tongues ?" the answer must be the self-evident negative.

From these Apostolic records the manifestations were strictly limited. The possession of the gift was equally limited. An impartial examination of these records shows conclusively that these manifestations were the exception and not the rule.

(2) The Gift and its Relative Value

Like many others since, the Christians at Corinth suffered from a wrong sense of values. They viewed things from a wrong angle, and hence they did not see things in their proper perspective. Quite sternly the Apostle rebuked them for their carnal state. Even after some years of Christian experience they were still “ babes in Christ.” There had been little or no growth. This un-developed spiritual mentality manifested itself in many ways, and not the least in their approach and attitude to the matter of spiritual gifts. He introduces the subject with the words “ I would not have you ignorant," and urges upon them the necessity of “ desiring earnestly the greater gifts “ (12. 31, R.V.), and exhorts them not to be children in understanding (14. 20).

The gifts are listed in ch.12. 28-30 in the order of their importance. This is evident from the way the Apostle uses the words “ first," “ secondarily," “ thirdly," “ after that “ and “ then.” The gift of tongues comes last. It is the least in importance and value, albeit the most enigmatic and spectacular. It was this latter character-istic that seemed to appeal so strongly to the Corinthians. Children like toys : the brighter the colour, and the bigger the noise, the better the boy likes them !

In 1 Cor. 14. 1-25 the gifts of tongues and of prophecy are compared and contrasted. The one standard to appraise the value of any gift is the measure in which its exercise ministers edification. The understanding was unfruitful when praying in a tongue (14. 14) ; therefore the individual himself could not be edified thereby unless it was interpreted. The same was true with regard to the others present (vv. 16, 17). There can be no edification if what is said is not understood. In this connection it is well to note the emphasis placed upon the relationship between understanding and edification, by the way the two words are so often repeated in the section. Music without distinction of sounds cannot minister comfort or cheer, and the trumpet which gives an uncertain sound will not be effective to awaken or stir up anyone. Simi-larly, to speak in a tongue that is not understood cannot possibly edify.

As far as the unconverted who might attend the gatherings were concerned, its exercise was a hindrance. They would consider it a mark of insanity! (14. 23). In Jan., 1951, in S. India, I witnessed a group who were indulging in an absolute orgy of emotionalism. Men and women were uttering barn-yard noises, to the accompani-ment of facial grimaces and peculiar physical gesticula-tions.They seemed like a group suffering from delirium.

Paul, who spoke with tongues more than they all, considered its value, in comparison with that which ministers to edification, exhortation and comfort, as practically nil. Five words with the understanding were pre-ferable to 10,000 in a tongue! His desire was to teach others (vv. 18, 19). Consequently he exhorted them to be zealous to excel in the edifying of the church (v. 12).

(3) The Gift and its Exercise, 1 Cor. 14. 26-40.

Church gatherings in Apostolic days were open. There was liberty for the exercise of gift. There was no pre-scribed form or ritual. “ They were not fashioned after the manner of a comet, with a more or less brilliant head and a nebulous tail!” But, nevertheless, important com-mandments were given to regulate such gatherings. In the section where these regulations are given (14. 26-40) there are no less than 14 verbs in the imperative mood. The first: “ Let all things be done unto edifying," and the last:” But let all things be done decently and in order “ are embracive and general. A final imperative, found in 16. 14, should be included with them; “ Let all things be done in love.”

If any man thought himself to be a prophet or spiritual he was to recognize that the Apostle had written by the commandment of the Lord (v. 37, R.V.). There is a touch of sarcasm in the words “ If any man think himself …” It is echoed in other sections of the epistle : “ If any man thinketh he is wise …" ; “ If any man thinketh that he knoweth anything …" ; “ Let him that thinketh he standeth …" ; “If any man seemeth (thinketh) to be contentious “ or a lover of debate and strife (3. 18 ; 8. 2 ; 10. 12; 11. 16). These reveal the megalomania with which many in Corinth were afflicted, and because of which the assembly suffered I Mistaken ideas as to their own spiritual importance made it difficult for such to submit to the authority of the word expressed so forcefully in these imperatives. The bearing they had on the exercise of the gift of tongues may be tabulated as follows :–

(1) Tongues were not to be forbidden. But they were to covet to prophesy (v. 39). The emphasis is on the “ covet," and the insertion of the word “But “ in the R.V. at the commencement of v. 40, is important.

(2) Speaking in tongues was permissible, but–

(a) was to be by course (v. 27). Two or more speak-ing at the same time would be confusion ! Of prophesying it is said “ Ye all can prophesy, one by one “ (v. 31).

(b) only two, or at the most three, could speak (v. 27), and even then

(c) only if there was an interpreter present who could interpret the message (vv. 27, 28)).

(d) only for men (v. 28). The silence enjoined upon sisters (v. 34) is also enjoined upon men under certain conditions (w. 28-30). It is futile to argue that this prohibition refers to ‘ chattering.’ That would suggest that only women are for­bidden this indulgence !

(e) only under complete control. He must be able to keep silence (v. 28).The idea that the Spirit of God dethrones the individual’s will is danger­ously false.Yet this is what is implied in the appeal often made in ‘ tongues ‘ gatherings to ‘ let go.’ This enigmatic gift not only had great attractions for the carnally-minded Corinthians, it was easily simulated by false spiritual forces.Hence the need for all the instructions to guard against ‘ strange tire ‘ in connection with ministry.Mr. Robert Baxter, a well-known London lawyer, spoke often in tongues.He lived to find out that he had been a dupe of Satan, and described his speaking with tongues as a “ mimicry of the gift of tongues, Satan as an ‘ angel of light’ imitating, as far as possible, the Spirit of God.”

(4) The GifT and its Purpose as a Sign-Gift, 1 Cor. 14. 22

“Wherefore tongues arc for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” This conclusion is drawn by the Apostle from the prophetic statement of Isaiah 28. 11, 12. “ With strange lips and another tongue will He speak to this people.” This was an echo of the prophetic warning given through Moses centuries before (Deut. 28. 49; cp. Isa. 33. 19). Jeremiah repeated it again on the eve of the Babylonian captivity (Jer. 5. 15).

A comparison of these relevant O.T. portions shows that the ‘ tongue ‘ and ‘ language’ which Israel would hear would be a sign of the impending judgment of God upon them for their national departure and disobedience. In spite of this judgment and its unmistakable sign, Isaiah said they would continue in their unbelief. The sign then was to Israel, spoken of as ‘ this people ‘ (v. 21), and it was a sign not of blessing, but of Jehovah’s disfavour towards them. The Apostle applies this to the gift of tongues. Tongues were a sign to the unbelieving nation that God was setting them aside and visiting the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. They were not a sign to the individual believer that he or she had received the Spirit. Such an idea is totally alien to the teaching of the New Testament. It must be inserted there before it can be taken out 1It reminds one of .the saying “ Wonderful things in the Bible I see, some put there by you, and some by me “ ! This must be assiduously guarded against. The event on the day of Pentecost was a sign to Israel that they were on the eve of a greater dispersion than the 70 years in Babylon, and that the gospel message was to be proclaimed to all nations. What occurred in the house of Cornelius proved to those of the circumcision that God had granted unto the Gentiles ‘ repentance unto life.’ Once this character of tongues as a sign-gift is apprehended, it is not difficult to interpret the expression “ tongues … shall cease “ (1 Cor. 13. 8). Whilst Israel was judicially set aside at the crucifixion, and by virtue of it, yet God in grace lingered over the nation. Only when they ratified their decision not to have Christ reign over them by stoning Stephen, thereby fulfilling the prophetic parable of our Lord (Luke 19. 14), did the cloud move to Samaria, then to Caesarea, and later to Antioch and the uttermost part of the world. As long as Cod was speaking to the nation, the sign-gifts continued.

Not only is the gift of tongues said to be a sign-gift with special reference to Israel, it is associated in 1 Cor. 13. 8 with two other gifts, of which it is stated that they “ shall fail “ or be annulled, or done away with. The word is used of the law in 2 Cor. 3. 11. These two gifts are prophecy and knowledge. Prophecy in the primary sense is dependent on revelation. Moses and Paul were prophets of this character. So long as the Word of God was incomplete such prophets and prophesying were necessary, but with the completion of the Scriptures there was no further need for the gift. But prophets in the secondary sense, as Aaron was a prophet of Moses (Ex. 7. 1), men who bring messages to the people of God gleaned from the Word of God are in a different category. Such ministry is still being provided by the Lord. Whereas churches in apostolic days had certain advantages over us, they did not possess the complete Scriptures. This places us in a position of greater responsibility. While in the wilderness, Israel were guided by the Pillar and they were fed with Manna; but on entering the land the Manna ceased, and Joshua was instructed to meditate in and be guided by the written Word of God (Josh. 1. 7-9). The gift was limited in its manifestations, and limited as to its value ; it had strict limitations placed upon its exercise in Apostolic days, and had marked limitations as to its purpose. As this purpose, has been fulfilled, we consider that the gift ceased towards the close of the days of the Apostles.


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