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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (37)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (37)

1 Corinthians 14:7-25

Broadcast: November 22, 1998; Message Number 1499

The Purpose of Tongue Speaking

In our last message on I Corinthians 14 we saw that the apostle Paul warns his fellow believers against the danger of using their gifts for selfish ends. This is especially true of tongue speaking. Those who possess the gift of tongues should exercise this gift only if other people can be edified and instructed by it. In verses 7 to 12 the apostle illustrates this point with two simple examples. One is in the realm of music: "Even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, produce distinct notes. If they don't, how will anyone recognize the tune that is played? If a trumpet or bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?"

So it is with tongue speaking, Paul says. If you say something in a language no one understands, how will anyone know what is being said? You will simply be speaking into the air. There are many different languages in the world, and none of them is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker will be a foreigner to me. Therefore, you who are so eager to use your gifts, make sure that your zeal is directed to the upbuilding of the church.

How then can the gift of tongues be used in an edifying manner? Paul explains this in verses 13 to 19. "Therefore," he says, "he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret." That suggests that when God gives the gift of tongues, as he evidently did in the early church, he also gives with it the gift of interpretation. There must be a deliberate attempt made to exercise that gift. Paul urges them that if they can exercise the gift of tongues, they ought to expect and pray to be able to exercise the gift of interpretation.

He brings his own practice in again: "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding [or my mind] is unfruitful." What Paul means is this. If I speak in an uninterpreted tongue, my spirit, my inner self may share in the experience, filling me with deep emotions, but my mind is not involved. The human intellect in this kind of ecstatic worship lies dormant and contributes nothing to the process of articulating thoughts into words.

What should I do in such a case? The answer is obvious. I must interpret what I am saying for the benefit of myself and others. "I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also." If I am going to speak in tongues in a church, Paul says, I will never do it unless I can interpret what I say. I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. I will never do one without the other, he means.

This is what you must do too; otherwise if you bless God with the spirit, how can anyone who is an outsider say Amen to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? You may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

Paul assumes that those present in the assembly will listen to the message and respond to it. But they will do so only if they understand what is being said. If they don't, how can they respond? How can they say Amen? Apparently, saying Amen in church was not frowned upon in those days! The "unlearned person" referred to here probably is a new believer or possibly a seeker. Such an individual could not be edified unless he could follow what the speaker was saying.

Again, Paul has nothing against tongues. He possessed the gift himself; in fact, to a far greater degree than any of the Corinthians. "I thank God," he says, "that I speak in tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue."

This raises the question, "When did the apostle Paul speak in tongues?" He obviously does not intend to do it in church. He would much rather exercise his gift of prophesying there. Well, when did he do it? Some charismatics will say, "Ah, this proves that the gift of tongues is for private use, to be used at home as a prayer language." That sounds plausible enough, but I do not think this is true, because nowhere in the Word of God is the exercise of the gift of tongues ever seen to be a private matter.

Every manifestation of tongues in the New Testament, without exception, is a public demonstration: on the day of Pentecost, in the home of Cornelius, where many were assembled and in the synagogue at Ephesus, referred to in Acts chapter 19. These were the only three places where the gift of tongues was said to have been exercised outside of this instance in Corinth. They were all public events.

Well, then, when did Paul speak in tongues? I believe it was when he visited the Jewish synagogues. There he would be given an opportunity to take part in public worship as a visitor. We cannot be absolutely sure, but it is likely that Paul would use such an opportunity to speak in tongues. To praise God in a foreign tongue, that is a Gentile language, would be a very impressive thing to the Jewish people present. But it would also be a sign of judgment to them. (We will look at that in more depth later.)

Next, Paul issues a word of caution. "Brethren," he says in verse 20, "be not children in understanding [or in your thinking]: howbeit in malice [or evil] be ye children, but in understanding be men." Why does the apostle introduce that exhortation here?

Before explaining to them the true purpose of tongues, he urges them to be mature in their thinking. It was their immaturity and carnality that caused most of their problems, including their misuse of spiritual gifts. They had to stop being babes in their thinking. So far, they had been unteachable. They were not interested in truth, but in experience; not in right doctrine or right living, but only in good feelings. They were not concerned to please the Lord or their fellow Christians, but they sought to please only themselves. They did not bother to test the spirits to see whether they were from God. If something sounded good, they believed it. If it felt good, they did it. Like the Israelites in the time of the judges, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

After this rather sharp rebuke, the apostle proceeds to explain what the real purpose of tongues is. He does so by quoting a passage from Isaiah 28. There God says concerning Israel: "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." Here we learn that the gift of tongues is a sign of divine judgement. Isaiah spoke these words at a time when the Assyrians were at the gates of Jerusalem, threatening to capture it. The Lord warns the nation that if they do not repent and turn from their evil and idolatrous ways they are going to hear foreigners talking in the Holy City; they will hear Gentile tongues filling the streets of that city. It is a warning to Israel to face up to their relationship with God, lest He turn from them to the Gentile world.

This prophecy was fulfilled about a hundred years later, when the Babylonians came and captured the city. Then the streets of Jerusalem were filled with foreigners speaking strange languages. If you read the day of Pentecost in that light, you will see how fully that accords with this prediction, for on that day the streets of Jerusalem were filled with thousands of people, mostly Jews, who had come from all the nations around. They heard the disciples speaking these strange, Gentile languages This was a sign to unbelieving Jews that God was about to turn from Israel's favoured position and go to the Gentile world. On that day Peter stood up and warned them that they were facing the judgment of God. Being convicted in their hearts, they cried out, "Men and brethren, what must we do?" The result was that three thousand of them turned to God with true repentance and faith in Christ. But the rest of the city, the mass of the population, remained in unbelief until the judgment came in the year AD 70, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed and over one million Jews were slaughtered.

That is what Isaiah said would happen. "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." Paul is saying that this is the purpose for the gift; that is why he used it in synagogues wherever he went, because it was a sign of warning to unbelieving Jews that God was turning to the Gentiles. Paul's conclusion therefore is this: "tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to those who believe not, but prophesying serves not for those who believe not, but for them that believe" (vs.22).

The apostle goes on to say: "If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and enquirers or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?" If tongues are spoken and are not interpreted, unbelievers will not understand it as a sign addressed to them. They will assume it is some secret language meant for the initiated and it will sound very weird to them. They will leave such a service, thinking they were in a madhouse and that what they witnessed was not that different from the wild and senseless rituals practised in pagan temples.

But if all prophesy and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. When God's Word is proclaimed clearly and faithfully, sinners will be convicted and converted to Christ. The Holy Spirit will work savingly in such a situation.

That does not change the fact, however, that when the gift of tongues is properly exercised, it is addressed to the unbelieving Jews. Seen in that light, this gift may yet be restored to the church today. In recent years Israel has come back into prominence, and there are many unbelieving Jews. They are difficult people to evangelize. Missionaries who try to bring the Gospel to them are often abused and screamed at. Fists are shaken and insults are hurled. There are millions of Jews in North America and it is possible that God may bestow the gift of tongues once more upon His Church as a witness to His ancient covenant people.

That will be quite different from modern tongue speaking as practised in charismatic circles today. What passes for tongue speaking nowadays does not meet the Biblical criterion. As William Samarin, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, says,

Over a period of five years I have interviewed many tongue speakers, and tape recorded and analysed countless samples of tongues. In every case, glossolalia turns out to be linguistic nonsense. In spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language. It is not a language, and it is not often addressed to God. It is usually addressed to a crowd of people present, so it does not fit that qualification. And it is primarily exercised privately today, whereas there is no manifestation of the private use of tongues in the New Testament. Finally, it is not a sign to unbelievers; therefore, we have to judge that the phenomenon that we see and hear today is not the biblical gift of tongues.

What is it then? I believe that people are being misled, oftentimes quite earnestly and sincerely, into identifying a purely psychological phenomenon of which many temperaments are capable, a kind of self-induced hypnosis which results in a repetition of sounds and syllables that have no meaning in themselves, as the gift of tongues. In itself it is relatively harmless. If people want to do it at home I have no objection as long as they do not call it the biblical gift of tongues, because it is not that. It is this common phenomenon which was present all through the ancient world, and which Plato discusses in several of his discourses. It was practiced commonly in the mystery religions of that day. Very often, all through the history of the church, it was associated with religious excitement. That is what is being identified today as the gift of tongues.

If the true gift is given, Paul says, "...forbid not to speak with tongues." When that which is not the biblical gift, but is being mistakenly called that, is exercised, we have every right to discourage its use and even forbid it as a divisive matter within the church.

This will have to do for now. In the next study we will look at the rest of this chapter and see what else Paul has to say about the gift of tongues and the role of women in the church.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1305225538
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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