The word "tongue" in both the Old and New Testaments sometimes refers to a physical object, like a part of our anatomy or the flames in a fire. Other times, it refers to one of the languages of the world. However, in one place, the book of I Corinthians, tongues refers to a special gift from God. The Corinthian experience of tongues was unique. There is no other reference in the Bible to the phenomenon of tongues which is discussed in I Corinthians.
Some people try to connect the references to tongues in Acts with those in I Corinthians. However, the word "tongues" in Acts and the word "tongues" in I Corinthians are referring to two different phenomena. The easiest way to see this is to use the rules which governed the Corinthian tongue experience as measurement of comparison. The rules state that only two or at the most three may speak in a tongue, each person must speak in turn, and the tongues must be interpreted so that the congregation can understand the content of the tongue. These rules obviously do not apply to the people who spoke in tongues as recorded in the Book of Acts.
For example, a careful study of Acts 2 shows that many people spoke in tongues at the same time (Acts 2:4). At least 18 different languages had been spoken by the count of the countries from which the listeners came (Acts 2:9-11). The messages spoken in tongues were clearly understood by the citizens of these countries without the need of an interpreter (Acts 2:8, 11). Therefore, "tongues" in Acts 2 means "languages." This accords with the overall message of Acts, which was that once Jesus sent the Holy Spirit as He had promised (John 16:7-14), the work of God in salvation began to go forth to all the countries of the world, with their diverse languages (Acts 2:11).
The Corinthian gift of tongues is greatly misunderstood today. Therefore, it is important that we have a clear idea of what the Bible teaches about that gift. First of all, it was a true gift from God. It is included in the list of legitimate gifts in I Corinthians 12:10. I Corinthians 13:1 implies that tongues was a language with a heavenly source. That leads us to the second important fact. Those in Corinth who spoke in a tongue did not mouth incoherent gibberish, but like all the languages of the world the heavenly tongue had content. As we read in I Corinthians 14:19, people spoke "words" in a tongue, which reinforces the fact that tongues had a content that was to be extracted by means of interpretation.
The companion gift of interpretation was required to complete the gift of tongues (I Cor. 14:5, 13, 27). Only in that way could the members of a church understand and obey the message of a tongue. Without interpretation, it was useless to the church (I Cor. 14:14) and ridiculous chatter to unbelievers who happened to be present (I Cor. 14:23). In this sense, and in this sense only, the gift of tongues was like the gift of prophecy. That is, the content of both gifts was to edify the church (I Cor. 14:5). To rehearse what we are trying to say, tongues mentioned in I Corinthians 14 were from God, and they contained concrete messages. They performed the same function as prophecy. However, they differed from prophecy in their form. They were one part of a two part gift, one being utterance and the other being interpretation. Other than that, they performed the same function as prophecy.
Inasmuch as prophecy was sufficient for God to bring His Word to man, it is natural to ask, "Why did God give this strange gift to the Corinthian church?" Prophecy and speaking in tongues with interpretation both accomplished essentially the same task. In many ways, they were redundant gifts. It appears that speaking in tongues was an unnecessary additional prop which God supplied the Corinthian church and only served to add to their confusion. The answer to the question lies in the form of the gift, and in particular the spectacular part, which was audible words that no one could understand without interpretation. God gave this peculiar gift as an opportunity for Him to test His church, not only the church in Corinth but also churches today. The gift was a test, a set up. Would members of the church who claim to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ delight in the gift or in the Gospel? In the gift of tongues, with its peculiar outward form, God had a device to reveal the true heart of each member by their reaction to the gift.
The scary dimension of the test was that it was not administered in order to help people learn how to escape the power and condemnation of their sin. Rather, it was meant to show people for what they already were in their hearts, whether they were people who had a heart to delight in God alone or a heart that had a carnal, physical focus.
I Corinthians 10:13 teaches that tests always come against men. Adam and Eve were tested in the Garden of Eden. Abraham was tested concerning his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1, ff). The whole wilderness journey was a test for the Israelites (Deut. 8:2). For example, the bread which God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness was the provision for their needs, but God gave it in such a way that it would be a test for them (Ex. 16:4, Deut. 8:2-16). Tests continued for Israelites even after they reached Canaan (Judges 2:22). The question of the hour for the members of the Corinthian church as well as for us today is, "Are you content with God's Gospel in the Bible alone? Are you obedient to that authority alone?" (I Cor. 9:27; II Cor. 13:5).
It is appropriate that we find in I Corinthians such a powerful test as tongues carefully discussed, for it was a church troubled by some members who had an interest in worldly wisdom and spectacular phenomena (I Cor. 1:22) and at the same time sought to identify with God. Because God deliberately designed the gift of tongues to be an impressive and outwardly observable spectacle, it could easily appeal to those who had a carnal focus and who were not truly spiritual.
The central problem of some members in the Corinthian church was that they had a carnal or material interest that dominated their lives. In the Corinthian church, this legitimate but rather different gift of tongues was a snare for those who would not focus upon the specific and concrete spiritual message of sin, judgment, and grace which God brought through prophecy. Some were focusing upon the spectacular alternative to prophecy, which was the phenomenon of tongues.
The Corinthian gift of tongues through interpretation was a suitable vehicle for God to bring a message of judgment to church members who were not truly saved. It fit God's custom of bringing a message of judgment to his apostate church by means of a tongue that required interpretation.
In Deuteronomy 28:47-49, God predicted that His national people would eventually forsake Him and that the mechanism He would use to judge them would be a people who spoke a language that they could not understand without interpretation. In time, the Israelites settled in the land God promised them and eventually split into two nations, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. When Israel forsook God, He sent the Assyrians, a nation whose language they did not understand, to destroy them.
Similarly, Babylon, many years later, destroyed Judah. Ezekiel 16 is God's comment upon the history of His national people and provides the reason that He brought judgment upon them by means of Assyria and Babylon (Babylon = Chaldea, in Ezek. 16:28-32). This passage adds the very important thought that His national people embraced the gods of the nations that would destroy them. National Israel gave herself wholeheartedly in spiritual adultery to those who came to her with a tongue she did not understand. Many years later, Judah did too. In the historical account, the spoken tongue was an earthly language. The speakers of the tongue were unbelievers, and the message was directed to citizens of Israel and Judah who wanted to identify with the true believers but who were not saved themselves.
God was totally in control of the historical situation. Assyria and Babylon came against Israel and Judah because He sent them in response to His people's sin. God wanted to work out the historical details so that He would have an illustration of how He would deal with the apostate churches in New Testament times.
While God Himself spoke through the gift of tongues to the Corinthian church, it would not be surprising in light of the above historical events to learn that the chief content of the tongues message was a warning judgment upon those in Corinth who were not living in obedience to Him. God's use of tongues that needed interpretation in the Corinthian church would match the use of tongues in the Old Testament, even though the Corinthian tongues was a heavenly language and the Old Testament tongues were earthly languages. The idea that the gift of tongues conveys a message of judgment is supported by I Corinthians 14:22, which states that tongues are for unbelievers. That is, it contains a message for them, not for their salvation but for their condemnation. In addition, it is for them in the sense that it is the kind of gift that God knows will appeal to their carnal nature and lead them further into their unbelief.
Incidentally, as an interesting contrast, I Corinthians 14:22 says that prophesying, which is the plain declaration of God's Word not needing interpretation, is meant for believers. That is, prophesying contains the whole Word of God, grace as well as judgment, and prophecy is for believers in the sense that believers are satisfied with God's Word alone and do not seek spectacular manifestations. Prophesy warns of judgment too, but its message also holds out the hope of salvation. This positive idea has a historical counterpart as well.
When the nation of Assyria destroyed Israel, its army continued south to attack Judah and its king. Judah at that time was not ripe for destruction. It had a more faithful history and lasted over one hundred years longer. Interestingly, when a few days later Assyria reached Judah, they spoke to the Jews in a language they could understand (Is. 36:13 ff.). This plain talk was equivalent to the prophecy of God in the sense that it required no interpretation. It brought King Hezekiah and his people to repentance and led them to a trust in God. The result was that God spared Judah and did not let Assyria take them (Is. 37:16-36).
Now that we have learned something about the gifts of tongues from God's use of it in history, we should say a few things about the role of tongues in the church today. The purpose for speaking to the church in a non understandable tongue in both the Old Testament and in Corinth was the same, even though the details of the phenomenon were different. In both cases, God was bringing a message of judgment. Israel and Judah were attracted to the gods of the people whose language they could not understand.
In Corinth, the unbelievers were attracted to the phenomenon of a tongue they could not understand. The form of the Corinthian tongue phenomenon was not exactly the same as the unknown tongues in Isaiah 28, to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 14:21. Nevertheless, the message of the tongues was the same in both. We conclude that, in a similar way, the gift of tongues is used by God in judgement today against unbelievers in the church.
God uses the gift of tongues described in the Corinthian church as a test to judge the unbelieving members of the church. The test is based upon the fact that the gift of tongues is not bestowed by God upon believers today. The basis for this fact is its similarity to the gift of prophecy. Both gifts contain concrete and specific information from God. According to Revelation 22:18, the Bible is a completed book. Therefore, since God does not add any information to the Bible through the normal way of prophecy, neither does He communicate additional information through the special way of a tongue. As God has stopped sending His prophets, so He has stopped distributing the gift of tongues.
Now, since God does not continue today to communicate with men in an articulated form such as a tongue, the tongues spoken today are neither an earthly language, as in the Old Testament, nor a heavenly language from God, as the Corinthians experienced, the experience of someone today is not a holy experience. Someone may make gibberish noises, pretending to speak in a heavenly tongue by using a mixture of earthly languages unknown to those who hear. Or they may be prompted by Satan. However, they do not speak a message from God. Like the Old Testament case and unlike the Corinthian case, the speakers of tongues today are unbelievers. Today, the hearers of a tongue, based upon an apparent holiness in the gift due to the account in I Corinthians, trust as authoritative the message of those who speak to them in a tongue. This imitates the Old Testament situation in which unbelievers in the nations of Israel and Judah committed spiritual apostasy by bowing to the authority of the gods of those who came to them in a language they did not understand.
Therefore, we can see how the Corinthian gift of tongues is a test for the churches today. The gift of tongues was deliberately designed to attract anyone who was interested in spectacular outwardly observable phenomena. This gift continues to intrigue many people in the church today. In fact, they want to believe that God continues to grant that gift to His church. To encourage unbelievers in this self deception, God deliberately gave the gift of tongues to the Corinthian church.
The gift at one time was a legitimate gift from God and could appear to be something the church members today might expect in their own lives. This would seem to support anyone who wanted to claim the gift of tongues was something God could still grant. God deliberately recorded the gift in the Bible to reveal faithful and unfaithful church members by their interest and participation in the phenomenon of the gift of tongues. Unbelievers, believing that God speaks to men in a tongue today as He did in Corinth, are judged not only for their attraction to spectacular manifestations but also for seeking new revelation. In fact, inasmuch as God does not speak through a tongue today, any such attempt to practice that gift is delusion, a deliberate deception, or a work of Satan.
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