Speaking in Tongues

The technical term for speaking in tongues is Glossolalia (from the Greek glossa = tongue or language and lalo = to speak or speaking). Some describe it as the “practice of making unintelligible utterances, often as part of religious practices” (Wikipedia), which is not strictly accurate. Others commonly speak of it as an ecstatic utterance, which is also inaccurate.

There is much debate as to both its status, such as whether its utterances can be considered to form language, and its source, whether it is a natural, supernatural, or spiritual phenomenon. The debate usually betrays a lack of knowledge about the nature of the gift, often due to a fear of trying it out, or of its emotional and apparently irrational nature.

Those experienced in its proper use know it to be one of the most wonderful gifts given to the church by Jesus, for the purposes of building up, strengthening and equipping the believer to grow and to minister, and as a useful weapon and tool in the struggle against the kingdom of darkness. Contary to the doctrine of some Pentecostals, fortunately becoming less accepted as time passes and barriers between denominations fall, it is not a gift that is essential to salvation. In fact, only faith in Jesus is essential to salvation. However, all of the spiritual gifts are important in the life of the believer, including the gift of tongues. Controversy and fear must not cause us to despise or neglect anything considered important by God. Jesus said, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18b), so we dare not refuse a gift so specifically intended for building!

Pentecost

The modern charismatic Christian concept of speaking in tongues began at Pentecost, as described in the Acts 2, when Jesus’ followers were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages they did not themselves know, but which could be understood by the many foreigners present on that occasion. They were heard and understood as proclaiming the glory of God. There are at least two explanations for this occurence. After the “tongues of fire” descended upon their heads, either the believers then spoke in languages unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as their own native language, or it was a gift of interpretation being given to the hearers so they could understand the message in their own language. Either is miraculous.

It is likely that this event was intended by God as a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11. The languages of humanity were differentiated at Babel, leading to confusion. At Pentecost they were reunited to enable the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to the people from many different countrieswho were gathered in Jerusalem.

It is clear from Paul’s later teaching, and from church history, that the above manifestation of tongues as natural human language is the more rare use of the gift, although there have been reports right down through history and to today of such happenings. However, the most common variety of the gift is as a sign of God’s activity, as a prayer language, as a form of prophecy or message gift, as a builder of faith, as a means of worship, as a weapon of spiritual warfare, and as a way for the human spirit to connect more rapidly and directly with God’s presence. Clearly, it is indeed a powerful and diverse gift, and as such is greatly neglected, misunderstood, feared, misused and abused.

Paul’s Teaching

Most of the instruction we have about tongues comes from Paul addressing some problems in the church at Corinth. This has been used by some to give tongues a bad press. However, we must understand that Paul is not giving us a user’s manual for the gift. Rather, he is trying to correct a situation of which the use of tongues is only a small part. He, and his readers, all assume the value of the gift – that is not in doubt. So it is not spoken about. Instead, some behavioural problems are dealt with.

Paul commands them, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39). He wishes that they “all spoke with tongues” (1 Cor 14:5), and claims “I speak with tongues more than you all” 1 Cor 14:18), Paul encourages to be orderly in their use of tongues (1 Cor 14:23, 27). They are speaking mysteries in the spirit, to God, rather than to men, (1 Cor 14:2). Tongues edifies the speaker (1 Cor 14:4), and it is the person’s spirit praying, not their mind (1 Cor 14:14). Tongues blesses and thanks God (1 Cor 14:16-17).

While in 1 Cor 12:7-11 and 1 Cor 12:28-30 Paul indicates that not all Christians speak in tongues, it does not say that they should not do so. In fact, Paul seems to strongly encourage them to use the gift. I believe that all believers have the ability to speak in tongues, as Jesus declares in Mark 16:16-17. It is not an elitist gift intended for a few super-spiritual heroes. It is primarily a prayer language, as in 1 Corinthians 14:14, Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20. In 1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul makes clear his belief that this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 28:11-12. Should a believer refuse a gift that Jesus clearly intended all to have, just because it is difficult to understand, or embarrassing to practice? Where is the faith in that?

If one thinks about the psychology of the gift of tongues, it is probably meant to be offensive to the rational mind, and to reduce the proud adult to the level of a little child, who can receive in faith. We need something to pull us down from our intellectual high horses, and the gift of speaking in tongues fills this role admirably!

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