The Gift of Tongues: Its Place in Scripture, Also Other Sign Gifts

Table of Contents

1. The Gift of Tongues

The Gift of Tongues

"In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that they will not hear Me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not." 1 Cor. 14:21,22.
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold are not all these which speak Galileans? we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God." Acts 2:4-11.
It is most important when speaking of this subject that we realize two things. What was the purpose of the gift of tongues? Were they languages that were spoken in the world, or were they merely ecstatic utterances? Now the Scriptures quoted above answer these questions very clearly.
First, they were given as a sign to unbelievers and not to believers.
Second, they were languages understood by those whose tongues they were.
If we bear these two things in mind, then all the Scriptures dealing with the subject become clear at once. As to whether they still exist today, then, if they do, we must expect them to be the same as those spoken of in the Scripture. God gave signs to confirm the Word to unbelievers that is, before the New Testament had been written (Mark 16:20, Heb. 2:3,4) Alas, today we find two things that alarm us in the present tongues movement.
First, they are not used to proclaim the wonderful works of God to unbelievers in their own language.
Second, they are very often associated with some very serious errors as to the Person and work of Christ, as well as other unscriptural practices.
These things ought to place us on guard before getting involved in such movements, for we are -told to, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." 1 Thess. 5:21. The way we prove them is by the Word of God. It is a solemn thing to look for a power that is not according to God's Word.
Let us consider the three passages in the Acts that speak of tongues. In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down according to the promise of Acts 1:4,5 (see also John 7:39;16:7). Up to this time God had been dealing with a particular nation, and the Lord Jesus, when here upon earth, said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Matt. 15:24. He also told His disciples, "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any of the cities of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Matt. 10:5,6. But now on the day of Pentecost, a new thing was about to commence. The Lord Jesus had said, "I will build My church" Matt. 16:18, and this church was to be composed of Jew and Gentile (1 Cor. 12:13). The middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile was to be broken down (Eph. 2:14) and what more apt sign of this new thing could be given than the gift of tongues? The message of the wonderful works of God, without previous education on the part of the speakers, goes out in many different languages. God was showing that He was reaching over the bounds of Israel, for He was about to break down the middle wall of partition that divided them.
The next time we read of the gift of tongues is in Acts 10:46. Here it is a company of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, for again I say we see God introducing this new thing by the bringing in of the Gentiles to form the Church of God on earth. They received the Gospel proclaimed by Peter, and when the Holy Ghost fell upon them they spoke with tongues and were added to the church. In rehearsing what took place in Acts 11:4-18, Peter said, "the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning." This makes it very clear that they also spoke in intelligible tongues (languages spoken in the world), for this is the way the gift of tongues was given at the beginning. Again we can see that this was in harmony with the ways of God, to show that He was reaching out beyond Israel to the Gentiles. Those in the assembly at Jerusalem were led to confirm this, for they said, "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." Acts 11:18.
The third time we read of the gift of tongues is in Acts 19:6, when Paul came to Ephesus. Here were a company of disciples who have never heard the gospel of the grace of God. They had accepted John the Baptist's message telling of the coming of the Messiah, and in repentance had been baptized by him. Now they hear of the Lord Jesus who has died and risen again, and that the Holy Ghost has come. John had said that the Lord Jesus would baptize with the Holy Ghost (Matt. 3:11), and this had already taken place on the day of Pentecost as the Lord Jesus had said it would in Acts 1:5. Now it was no longer necessary to wait for the baptism of the Holy Ghost, for He had come, and so when Paul laid his hands on them they received the Holy Ghost. They too bear witness, by speaking in tongues, that Christianity was not like John's message to the nation of Israel, for the gospel message in Christianity reaches out to the Gentile. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians does not mention the gift of tongues, but clearly brings out how the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, forming one body in Christ (Eph. 2:14-16;3:6).
The only one of all the epistles which speaks of the gift of tongues is 1 Corinthians. Here we are told that the Corinthians came behind in no gift, and yet they were carnal Christians. (1 Cor. 1:7;3:1). Now "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" Rom. 11:29, and God does not withdraw a gift from a person to whom He has given it, even though the person may not use it according to His mind as revealed in His Word. It is possible to use a God-given gift in the wrong way, or for display and self exaltation. Moreover it is important to notice that all the believers at Corinth did not have the gift of tongues, (1 Cor. 12:30) but some who had been given this gift, were not using it in love nor for profit, and this is why Paul exhorts them not to act as children who like to show off (1 Cor. 13:11;14:20). When he speaks of the tongues of men and of angels it is in the same way as he speaks of angels preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:8), for we may be sure angels can speak any earthly language, and the elect angels are ministering spirits. caring for all the children of God regardless of nationality (Heb. 1:13,14).
There is no thought here of a so-called "heavenly language", for how could a language unknown to any people or nation on earth be a testimony to unbelievers. Yet Scripture shows us, as we have already pointed out, that tongues were given as a sign to unbelievers. Tongues will not be needed when "that which is perfect is come" (1 Cor. 13:8-10) so they will cease in the coming glory.
Notice here it does not say "the gift of tongues", but simply that "tongues" would cease. In heaven prophecy will not be needed, and knowledge will no longer be in part, and since all will be of one mind and speak the same language, then tongues will cease. The various languages began at the tower of Babel when man in his pride sought to put up a building of bricks whose top would reach to heaven. Now God is building a spiritual house, of which all believers are part as living stones, regardless of nationality or tongue. Again we see the wisdom of God in introducing this new thing by giving the gift of tongues. To use this gift without love, and simply for display was not in God's purpose.
Therefore in the fourteenth chapter of Corinthians, the apostle follows on with this subject, and regulates its use in the assembly. On the previous occasions recorded in the Acts, they were not used in the assembly as gathered together, but only as a sign in keeping with God's purpose in giving them. Now since it was a God-given gift, its use was not forbidden as long as there was an interpreter. It would, when used in this way, be a reminder to the assembly of God's grace in working among other nations in blessing, and gathering them into one body in Christ. Even today, we may be prone to forget, in an assembly where all speak in one language, that God is saving souls and giving them the Holy Spirit as members of the one body, from every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. Very often when some of another tongue come in, and we have to interpret for them, we are reminded of how, on the day of Pentecost, every one heard in his own tongue wherein he was born, the wonderful works of God. (Acts 2:8).
Sad to say the Corinthians were using the gift of tongues for display, and so Paul had to tell them not to speak in another tongue, unknown to those present, unless there was an interpreter. They could, however, "speak to themselves and to God" in another tongue, for He understood every language. If I were in a meeting where no one understood English, I would speak to myself and to God in English. But verses 21 and 22 of this chapter make it clear that it was not some ecstatic utterance that is referred to, but the tongues Paul was speaking about, were other languages which would be a sign to unbelievers of the power of God and of how the message of salvation now goes out to all nations. If there was no one present in the assembly who understood the language and no interpreter it would not serve its God-given purpose as shown in Acts 2. Moreover it would seem foolish to strangers coming in, who could not understand what was spoken. It would be confusion, God would not be glorified and no one would be edified (1 Cor. 14:21-25).
But the question is often asked whether we have the gift of tongues today. To ask the question is to answer it, for there is no person or group who would claim to be able to do what took place in Acts 2, gathering a group of people from "every nation under heaven" Acts 2:5, and then speaking to them in their own tongues the wonderful works of God.
This brings us to an important consideration, not only as to the gift of tongues, but also as to all the sign gifts. The Scripture does not promise that the gifts of tongues, healing and miracles, even to the raising of the dead, as wrought by specially gifted ones in the early church, would continue. We know they existed in the early church as is clearly recorded in the Acts and in Corinthians, as signs to confirm the Word which had not yet been written. There is, however, the promise of the continuance of the gifts of ministry for the edification of the church (Eph. 4:7-16). Now we have in the written Word, the foundation of Christianity laid by the apostles and prophets (Rom. 16:26, 1 Cor. 3:10, Eph. 2:20-22), and the continuation of the gifts of ministry, "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." Eph. 4:12-14.
As mentioned before, there are those who profess to have the gift of tongues and other "sign gifts" today. As we test their claims by the Word of God and by actual facts, we find they are not the same as in the book of the Acts. They do not use the gift of tongues as a sign to unbelievers, nor can a group of sick ones be called together and every one be healed. (Acts 5:12-16) Even as regards the healings recorded in the Acts, there is no assurance that those who were healed were believers, but rather every indication to the contrary. It was a sign to confirm the Word to unbelievers, for true believers do not need to have the Word confirmed to them, for they have received it as the Word of God. (1 Thess. 2:13). Also it is important to see that healing has to do with the world or age to come. (Heb. 6:5, Isa. 33:24, Psa. 103:3). It was especially a sign to those who had rejected their Messiah, and to others as well, that He is the One who will later bring in the kingdom blessings on the earth, and that He is now risen and these mighty works were done in His Name (Acts 4:9,10).
It is very important that we distinguish the two distinct spheres of blessing of which the Lord Jesus will be the center in the coming day. (Eph. 1:10). There will be the heavenly scene to which the church belongs (2 Cor. 5:1, Col. 1:5, 1 Peter 1:3,4) and there will be the earthly scene of which Jerusalem on earth will be the center (Isa. 4:3-5;65:18). Since we, as part of the church, are a heavenly people, we await the moment of His coming when we will be changed and have bodies of glory fashioned like unto Christ's glorious body (Phil. 3:20,21). In the meantime "in this tabernacle we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven." 2 Cor. 5:2.
In connection with this, it is most interesting to notice carefully the mention of sickness among believers in the epistles, that is among those who belong to the heavenly company. We read in Rom. 8:23 that we "which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." There is no mention here of healing, but rather of waiting for the redemption of our bodies. The Spirit in the meantime "helpeth our infirmities", but it does not say He removes them.
Then later in 2 Cor. 12:7-10, we find that Paul had a thorn in the flesh, called an infirmity in Gal. 4:13, yet the Lord did not heal him, but taught him dependence upon Him through it. Timothy had "oft infirmities" but Paul did not suggest a healer, but rather a remedy for his infirmity (1 Tim. 5:23). Again in 2 Tim. 4:20, though Paul had healed many in his gospel work, (as recorded in Acts 19:11,12;28:8,9) he left Trophimus at Miletum sick.
In James 5:14-18 we have the case of one who is sick and he calls for the elders to pray for him. It is not the sick man's faith that restores him to health, nor is his faith even mentioned, but rather faith exercised on the part of those who pray for him. Nor is it the gift of healing in exercise, but rather answered prayer, suggesting that the one who is sick recognizes that he must be upright and confess known sin. The ones who pray discern the Lord's mind in connection with the sickness, and praying according to God's will, He answers their prayer. There is no mention here of a miraculous sudden healing, but of the Lord raising the sick man up again. In those days too, there were elders appointed by the apostles, whereas today there are no apostles or apostolic delegates, as Titus was, (Titus 1:5) to appoint them. The local assembly never appointed its own elders even in Scripture times, though no doubt in these days of ruin and failure, God is faithful, and so as Paul looked on to those days when grievous wolves would (and have) come in, he spoke of those elders at Ephesus, not as appointed by himself, but by the Holy Ghost (Acts 20:28-30). There are no official elders today, but no doubt there are, even today, those raised up of God to take the oversight of His people, in the spirit of humility and love for the flock of God. This is no doubt why James mentions the case of Elijah, a prophet in the days of Israel's failure and division, and shows how he was intelligent as to the Lord's mind in his prayers. He first saw the need of discipline on God's people in withholding the rain, and then God in grace answering the prayer of Elijah in sending rain. How often we have seen the Lord answering prayer in our day in many difficult situations, and in restoring sick ones to health, but let us have an understanding of the times and discernment as to His will in these things (Eph. 5:17).
We can see from 1 Cor. 11:30 how God uses sickness in His governmental ways with us, for we read that because of unjudged sin, God had allowed many in Corinth to be "weak and sickly" because they had not judged themselves for their careless ways. John also speaks of these things in his epistle (1 John 5:14-17) showing how the Lord might remove one in death because of his careless ways. While the Christian is eternally secure as to his soul's salvation, he comes under the governmental ways of God, and God sometimes uses sickness to deal with His own. If we refuse to listen, we may lose the privilege of living here as a testimony for Christ, even though the blood of Christ has made us fit for heaven. Of course this does not mean that all sickness is chastisement, for it may be simply because our bodies are part of a groaning creation and we may have inherited some weakness as such, or it may be God's schooling, like pruning a vine so there will be more fruit. This was the case with Paul in 2 Cor. 12:7-10.
It is most important for us that our expectations do not go beyond the Word of God (Psa. 62:5, Num. 23:19). Those who are looking for these sign gifts today, have allowed their expectations to go beyond the Word of God, and this leaves them open to "every wind of doctrine" and to the power of the enemy (Psa. 17:4,5; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). False prophets will do signs and wonders in a coming day (Matt. 24:24) but they will be done by Satan's power, and the only way that we can be sure that a thing is of God is that it is according to His Word. All the Scriptures that speak of the last days of the church's history, speak of departure from God and weakness, not signs and wonders. Look at Paul's description of the last days of the church in 2 Tim. 3, or John's description of the last days of the church as seen in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-20), and Peter's warnings in 2 Peter 3:3,4. Joel's prophecy in Acts 2 which some have used to support signs and wonders in these last days of the church's history, refers to a future day for Israel (the last days for them, Joel 2:21-32). The day of Pentecost was of that character, for Israel as a nation were Then given the opportunity to repent of their guilt in crucifying their Messiah and thus receive the promised blessing which will be theirs in a later day when they do repent. (Acts 3:17-26).
The Holy Ghost was given on the day of Pentecost, and now, as a divine Person He indwells the bodies of believers (1 Cor. 6:19) and He is also in the professing house of Christendom (Eph. 2:22). The Lord Jesus spoke of this (John 14:16,17) and told the disciples, prior to the day of Pentecost, to wait for His coming at which time they would be "endued with power from on high" Luke 24:49. In Corinth the believers were not told to wait for "the power" to come upon them, but rather to use the gifts of the Spirit God had given them, intelligently as directed by His Word, in holy liberty as led by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-11). Another has said, "The Spirit and the Word cannot be separated without falling into fanaticism on the one hand or rationalism on the other." It is a dangerous thing to wait for a further outpouring of power beyond that which we have as indwelled by the Spirit of God. There are two powers above man, and they are the power of God and the power of Satan. The charismatic movement leads people to look for displays of power that are not according to the Word of God and therefore are not by the Spirit of God. Mr. Edward Irving who began this movement in England in the last century taught some of the most shocking things about the Person of Christ which one does not like to repeat (see Coll. Wr. J.N.D., Vol. 15, pages 1-51 Morr.), yet there were great displays of power and tongues at that time which caught even real Christians in the snare. (see Spirit Manifestations, Sir Robt. Anderson, pages 19, 20). Even today the display of this power and tongues is too often associated with evil doctrine as to the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and other unscriptural practices, for Satan can take the form of an "angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:13-15) as well as a "roaring lion" (1 Peter 5:8,9). His great aim has always been to attack the glorious Person and the finished work of our ever blessed Lord and Savior.
For this reason we can see the importance of first testing this modern charismatic movement by the Word of God. Let us not look for "the power", for if one is a true believer on the Lord Jesus Christ, he or she is indwelled by the Spirit of God who is the power for our walk as children of God. In Luke 11:13, before the day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus told His disciples to ask for the Holy Spirit, for He had not yet been given (John 7:39), but now He indwells the bodies of all those who have believed the gospel (Eph. 1:13). There is no record of anyone being told to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit after the day of Pentecost. There is the exhortation to be "filled with the Spirit" Eph. 5:18, which means that we are to allow Him to lead us in all that we do. It is placed in contrast with being drunk with wine, for such a person would be out of control, whereas one who is filled with the Spirit would be under control, for one of the fruits of the Spirit is temperance or self control. (Gal. 5:22,23). Where the Spirit of God is leading there is liberty and intelligent service.
As we walk close to the Lord in dependence and obedience, there will be, by the power of the Spirit of God, the enjoyment of Christ and of our portion in Him, for the Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself, but guides us into all truth and glorifies Christ (John 16:13,14, Eph. 3:16,21, Col. 1:8-14) He will also enable us to render a true testimony for Christ before others (Phil. 2:15,16). If we see displays of power about us, we will be more concerned about whether they are according to God's Word than whether the sign or wonder comes to pass (Deut. 13:1-4).
In closing one would commend these remarks to the Lord that they may be used to help the people of God to discern the path of faith in these last days. We rejoice to see God working in grace in saving souls, using His precious Word by whomsoever it may be preached (Phil. 1:18). But God would also have those who are His to "come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4). The path of obedience to His Word is the only safe and truly happy path, and in that path, as another has said, "there are no disappointments and no deluded hopes." Wisdom's ways are "ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." Prov. 3:17. The Scripture does not tell us to look for a second Pentecost, but rather to know how to act and how to gather to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience, when Christendom has become a great house with "vessels to honor and vessels to dishonor in it." 2 Tim. 2:16-26. The Lord had to say to Peter on one occasion, "Get thee behind Me, Satan, Matt. 16:23, showing how even a real and useful believer can be led astray and used of the enemy.
May we know what it is to enjoy our portion in Christ now, by the Spirit, having, as another has said, large hearts (to love all the true children of God) and narrow feet (to walk in the narrow way of obedience to God's Word) while we look forward to that blessed day when we will be with Christ in that glorious Home above. Then the church will be presented "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing." Eph. 5:27. All that will really count then will be to have His approval as to our pathway home to the Father's house.
"Lord, haste that day of cloudless ray,
That prospect bright unfailing;
Where God shall shine in light divine,
In glory never fading."
L.F. 169.
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