100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

#30: What is the gift of tongues?

Yesterday I spoke about the “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, which I suggested were our God-given abilities. One might have expected that I would talk about what are often called the “miracle gifts”, one of which is the “gift of tongues”. If you're unfamiliar with the phenomenon of tongues, it is the supposed ability to speak in a foreign language which one has not actually learned to speak. This phenomenon is most typically practised by a particular branch of Christianity called the “Charismatic movement”, which gets its name from the Greek word “charisma”, which translates to “gifts”. But generally speaking, outside of this branch of Christianity, Christians are of the view that the gift of tongues is not Biblical. So this is an area in which there is some disagreement amongst Christians. As usual, I will share my own conclusions on the matter, but we are all personally accountable to God for what we believe. You must draw your own conclusions from Scripture.

I was brought up in a Christian home, and the Church our family attended was a charismatic Church. All my life I grew up amongst people who spoke in tongues. In fact, it wasn't until I was born again and started attending a local Church which did not believe in the gift of tongues that I even had any idea there were Christians who didn't believe in tongues. When I did find out, I did not take it well. My own mother speaks in tongues, and what am I to believe – that she is faking it? Or that she is deceiving herself? Tell any Charismatic that there is no gift of tongues and they will not believe you because nobody wants to be told that they've played the fool for so long. How can they accept that? But they will all say “You don't understand because you haven't experienced it!” But nobody's experiences, should they fail to align with Scripture, should be counted as having greater authority than Scripture. I determined to read my Bible to discover the truth of the matter, and it was ultimately the Bible alone which convinced me.

But the Bible does speak of people talking in tongues, so why should I say that it's not right for people to speak them today? Well, the Bible also speaks of Moses parting the Red Sea, and of prophets who called down fire from heaven, and those who were thrown into a furnace but were unharmed. These things are decidedly unusual, even at the time they occurred. That's why they're recorded in Scripture and grab our attention. In the New Testament the Apostles healed the lame, raised the dead, and spoke in tongues. Again, these things are not the norm. Rather, when such miracles occurred, they were a visible sign to authenticate the God-given authority of the one who did them. In the case of tongues, it was a visible sign which communicated the commencement of the New Covenant. On the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2, we read of the first occasion in which people spoke in tongues...

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1)

Later, Peter preaches the gospel to those who witnessed this, and the record says:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. (Acts 2:41-43)

Let's focus our attention on that last part... “and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” The distinct impression one gets is that those just converted did not carry on speaking in tongues; otherwise “signs and wonders” would have carried on through all, not just the apostles. We read of two other occasions in the book of Acts in which tongues were spoken. In particular, in Acts 10, Peter is told to go to the home of a Gentile family. When this Gentile family hears the gospel they are converted, and begin to speak in tongues. Peter recounts the event to the other apostles...

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way? When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:15-18)

The purpose of this visual manifestation of tongues seems quite clear. The apostles understand clearly, having seen this, that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” The event was God's way of communicating the inclusion of Gentiles into His kingdom; symbolically, the language barrier being made of no consequence. In the record above it refers to being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (or receiving “the same gift” of the Holy Spirit), rather than to the tongues themselves. And they understood it to be associated with the moment they believed and were converted. All believers, when they are saved, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’s “indwelling”. This is certain, for the Bible says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Romans 8:9). But people who are saved today do not begin speaking in tongues. Some Charismatics, though not all, claim that if a person doesn't speak in tongues it means that they are not saved. But this is certainly not Biblical, as Paul says: “Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Corinthians 12:30) The question is rhetorical, and the answer is “No, not all speak in tongues.”

Well, I must leave off for today. Until tomorrow...

If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:37)

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