The Charismatic movement is based on the concept that there is a retention and reactivation of the early New Testament gifts, of which the gift of ‘tongues’ occupies the major and primary emphasis.
While some charismatic leaders are attempting publicly to diminish the priority of this gift because of criticism received, Oral Roberts put it squarely on the line when he states, “People are saying tongues are the periphery. I say they are the mainstream.” While there may be some variation of emphasis within the three strains of the Charismatic movement today, all three (Classic Pentecostalism, Neo-Pentecostalism and the Catholic Charismatics) have as their central core the common bond of ‘tongues’.
There are seven simple questions and answers to this controversial subject: (1) Were there tongues in the New Testament? (2) If this gift existed, what was its real nature? (3) Who possessed this gift? (4) How important was this gift to the structure of New Testament Christianity? (5) What was the purpose of this gift? (6) How long did this gift last? Is this gift still in existence today? (7) If this gift has ceased what is the real need today?
In the following outline, these seven questions will be answered from Scripture
1. The Gift of Tongues was a Supernatural Gift (I Corinthians 12:7-10, 12:28-30)-
Tongues was one of several supernatural gifts given by Christ upon his ascension (I Corinthians 12:7-10, 12:28-30 with Ephesians 4:7-11).
There are three major passages that deal with these gifts: Ephesians 4:7-10, Romans 12:3-8, and I Corinthians 12-14. The gifts can generally be divided into three major types based on the emphasis of these passages: (1)The Speaking Gifts (Ephesians 4:7-11), (2) The Service Gifts (Romans 12:3-8) and (3) The Sign Gifts (I Corinthians 12-14). The categorization of these gifts is not exclusively limited to each of these passages, but the main emphasis is clearly in accord with the designation listed. The divine origin of tongues is indicated in the five usages of this gift in the New Testament; four in Acts and the reference in I Corinthians 12-14.
2. The Gift of Tongues was a Selective Gift
Tongues was bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon whomsoever He chose with the recipient having no active part whatsoever in its reception. (“…For to one is given by the Spirit the … to another the … 1 Corinthians 12:8).
Nowhere in the New Testament is anyone ever commanded to “seek” this gift. In I Corinthians 12 Paul compares the body of Christ to a human body. Not all the body is a tongue! Tongues advocates would reply that Paul said “forbid not to speak with tongues” (I Corinthians 14:39). Since tongues was a valid gift during a transitional age, believers were not to forbid its use within apostolic guidelines. But, contrary to what Charismatics claim, no conditions were ever listed for receiving this gift. Classical Pentecostalists believer that speaking in tongues is the “initial evidence of the baptism in the Spirit.” The Scriptures declare, however, that every genuine believer experiences Spirit Baptism at conversion (I Corinthians 12:13). In Romans 8:9-11, the Spirit of God is declared to dwell in every believer, while Romans 8:15 states that the Spirit of God within the believer witnesses to the fact that he is a genuine child of God.
The gift of tongues was bestowed upon a few sovereignly selected recipients. Those who possessed this gift never had to learn how to use it or to practice its functions. When the Holy Spirit directed, they spoke fluently, without any instruction.
This usage differs vastly from the modem practice where individuals are instructed to ‘imitate certain others’, ‘to open their mouths wide’, ‘to let their minds go’, and ‘to babble whatever pops into their mind’. Such instruction is contrary to Matthew 22:37 where we are instructed to worship God with all our mind, and I Corinthians 14:15 where we are requested to pray with understanding. Believers who give up the use of their minds to outside powers are in danger of having that mind filled with unbiblical and satanic thoughts.
3. The Gift of Tongues was a Speaking Gift
Tongues was not some unknown mystical heavenly language, but spoken foreign languages, previously ‘unknown’ only to those who received the gift.
One of the important principles of biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) is the principle of first mention. Whenever a subject is mentioned for the first time, that usage is to be particularly noted, since it gives a clue to its usage and meaning throughout the remainder of Scripture. The first time tongues is mentioned in the New Testament, it is associated with spoken foreign languages, three times in Acts 2, it is specifically stated that those present heard the message in their own language – tongue (Acts 2:6,8,11).
Furthermore, it should be noted that the word ‘unknown’ is in italics in the English version, meaning that the translators supplied this word. A final confirmation is that the Greek root words for ‘other tongues’ in both Acts 2:4 and I Corinthians 14:21 are the same, indicating that the tongues spoken at Pentecost and the gift given to certain believers in Corinth were of a similar nature.
4. The Gift of Tongues was a Sign Gift
The only passage in Scripture where the purpose of tongues is declared is in I Corinthians 14:21, where it is plainly stated that tongues was given as a sign for unbelievers. In discussing the purpose, Paul refers to an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 28:11 (“For with stammering lips and another tongue will I speak to this people.”). The context of Isaiah 28 reveals that this passage deals with divine judgment upon the nation of Israel. Israel is pictured as a proud (28:1), rebellious, adulterous, drunken nation (28:7-8) which refused to hear the plain instruction of the Hebrew prophets in the Jews native tongue. Since they refused to hear the warning in their own language, God declared that he would send another nation whose tongue-language was unintelligible (unknown) to the Israelites, the tongue of the Assyrian conquerors! The unbelieving Jews refused to listen to both warnings: the Hebrew prophets in their own language and the foreign tongue of the Assyrians.
In I Corinthians 14, God indicated that he was going to give his chosen people another opportunity to prepare for coming judgment which had already been pronounced upon Jerusalem and the Hebrew nation for its rejection of the Messiah. Jews scattered across the face of the Roman Empire were given an extended opportunity to repent. The message of tongues was simple: tongues was given as a sign to the unbelieving Jew, a message designed to produce repentance in view of the impending national judgment. In 70 A.D. judgment fell upon Jerusalem under the hand of the despotic Roman emperor Nero, as the city was burned to the ground and left desolate.
5. The Gift of Tongues was a Short Gift
Temporary in nature, its need ceased with judgment upon Jerusalem and the completion of the New Testament record. Tongues is never mentioned after Paul’s letter of I Corinthians. Not once is it mentioned in anymore of Paul’s epistles, Peter’s letters or John’s writings. Written just one year after I Corinthians, tongues receives no consideration in Paul’s treatise on Christian gifts in Romans 12.
In I Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul states that “When that which is perfect is come” that which was in part would be “done away.” The charismatic claims that this refers to Christ’s second coming and since this had not yet occurred, the gift of tongues must still be in existence. Paul, however, reminds these believers, that this gift would cease upon the receiving of the “perfect”. The word “that” in I Corinthians 13:10 is in the neuter gender and thus cannot refer to Christ. Paul was referring to the perfect Word of God. With the completion of the book of Revelation, the inspired record was completed and thus there was no longer any need for the temporary gift of tongues.
6. The Gift of Tongues is a Supplanted Gift
Tongues has been supplanted by the perfect permanent written Word of God. In II Timothy 3:16-17 Paul indicates that Gods written Word is sufficient for every need of life: for “doctrine” (teaching), NO NEW TEACHINGS ARE NEEDED; for “reproof (negative discipline); for “correction” (corrective discipline) and for “instruction in righteousness,” so that Gods man would be “perfect” (mature, complete, without deficiency), completely furnished “unto all good works”. God’s Word is sufficient to complete, to mature, to finish the work of transforming the believer into Christ’s image. No new revelations, visions, dreams of the Redeemer. God’s Word is sufficient. Therefore, tongues is an unnecessary gift for this age and has been supplanted by the perfect Word of God.
7. The Gift of Tongues is a Simulated Gift
Tongues having ceased, men can only attempt to imitate the real gift, which no longer exists. The great need today is for Spirit-filled believers (Ephesians 5:18). That filling comes simply as believers are emptied of sin and yielded to the Spirit’s control. The answer to the dilemma of lack of power in professing Christendom is not the counterfeit of Satan, but the control of the Spirit! Biblical Christianity desperately needs those kind of believers.
By Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.