Christian Churches of God
(Edition 1.0 19961005-19961005)
On the first day of Pentecost of the New Testament Church, the Apostles "spoke in tongues". This paper by an editor of The Bible Advocate discusses what is meant by "tongues" and for how long this phenomenon was to persist. Advice on how to test for genuine "speaking in tongues" is included.
The idea of there being different languages on earth is an intriguing one. Depending on whether you think man “evolved” or was created, depending on whether you believe in the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, you may come up with a much different theory about the origin of different languages. However man originated, and whatever his history may have been, the fact of men speaking different languages has been a real problem. If you travel, you are quickly confronted with the need to know someone else's language, or need to find someone who knows your own. It can hardly be called a “blessing” that we speak a different language. It is an horrendous problem! We can hardly understand each other when we've been raised in the same family. Even though we use the same words across our country, we mean quite different things – “evening” meant from noon to midnight where I was raised; and “morning” meant from midnight till noon. Then I got married and said we ought to do some thing “this evening”. I had reference to sometime in the afternoon – my wife was thinking about a time after sundown.
We are constantly admonishing people to “communicate”, not to hold back their feelings; make others know how we feel, what troubles and what pleases us. That can be dangerous. One of our Hispanic brethren came up to me and said, “I need to talk with you. We have a problem about do-nuts”. The way he pronounced “do-nuts” (are you to think “do-nuts” or “dough-nuts”?) I thought he was referring to one of the women in the congregation. I became all ears, ready to give wise counsel – and found out that the problem was he had been buying all the doughnuts for the fellowship snack after worship services out of his own pockets! Ah! The blessing of unknown tongues, dialects, regional pronunciations, and re-learning the sound values of letters when you learn English! Believe me, it can cause real problems! So, why would anyone wish to speak in an unknown tongue, when the Bible says God confounded the language of man as a punishment, to defeat the purposes of the builders of the tower of Babel, to scatter and divide man, instead of unifying him? (There is no instance in the Greek manuscript where “unknown” and “tongues” are used together. Where translations speak of “unknown tongues” the Greek manuscripts only say “tongues”. The word “unknown” appears commonly in New Testament Greek, but never in connection with “tongues”.)
Now, when it comes to the New Testament, and the account of the day of Pentecost, when the disciples spoke with “other tongues” it seems the Lord was dealing with the problem He had created for man. In order for the people to understand, God performed a miracle and caused the disciples to speak in languages that they had not learned. It was very impressive; it honoured God; and it made the hearers aware that God was working through these men.
Those men were Jews. Not long afterwards, some believers in other nations also miraculously spoke in languages they did not know. It is mentioned several times in the book of Acts, and Paul refers to it in writing to the Corinthians. Mark quotes Jesus as prophesying this would happen (Mark 16:17). Only Luke (the writer of Acts) and Paul refer to the tongues experience, and Mark predicted its occurrence.
Matthew does not mention it. Neither James, John, Jude, nor Peter refer to it. Paul wrote letters also to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, the Colossians; to Timothy, Titus, Philemon – and perhaps to the Hebrews. He never mentioned the phenomenon in any of his letters except in his first letter to the Corinthian church: not even in his second letter to Corinth. Why did he not mention the matter, if this was intended to be an ongoing experience in the Church, even to our times? Why does Paul speak of it only to the Corinthians? But the idea is intriguing. What if God were to provide us with the ability to go to a foreign country without training and there be able miraculously to speak their language and preach the gospel to the people there? What an impact it would have on the listeners! My, how we could win people to Christ by the droves if we were only able miraculously to speak in other languages!
That is what some people think it was intended for. Those who have made themselves available to God to be used in such a fashion have usually been disappointed that the sounds they made were not understood by the natives to whom they spoke any more than they are understood by the rest of us when someone “speaks in tongues” among us.
Yes, I have heard of a person speaking in Spanish or French, and someone in the audience is reported to have understood their message, it having been intended for them personally. I do not know that to be true by personal witness. If it happened, I was not there. I have been present many times when people “spoke in tongues”, but it has never sounded like a language to me; and on the few occasions when someone purported to be interpreting what was said, I had reason to feel very uneasy about the interpretation. Why? Because in the many times in many languages when I have had someone interpret for me, the interpreter almost always uses many more words and phrases to give the correct meaning than the number of words I have spoken. Not so the interpretation of “unknown tongues” in a Pentecostal meeting – those I have attended. The interpretation is usually much shorter. Does God need more words to give the same meaning than man needs to repeat it to man? I don't think so!
Further, seldom is anything profound said in the interpretation. Usually something safe, like, “The Lord says He wishes you to have good health, and that He will bless you if you obey Him”.
All the experiences I have had with the “tongues” movement have caused me to feel very ill at ease with the motivation and the source of what I hear. You may wish to keep that in mind as you read what I have to say about 1Corinthians 13:8. I admit I am negatively biased on the subject.
As a result of my experiences, I searched carefully to determine from the Scriptures whether God intended for the tongues experience to continue into our times. Two Scriptures seem pertinent. The first is the prophecy given in Mark 16:17-18 “And these signs shall follow the believers: In My name they shall expel demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall pick up serpents, and if they drink anything fatal it shall not injure them in the least. They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall become well” (Berkeley Version). Some Bibles have a note after Mark 16:9-20 indicating these verses are not in the best two manuscripts. This makes me wary of conclusions drawn from the passage.
Let's suppose the passage is legitimate. It seems odd to me that so much is made of the tongues aspect of this prophecy, if it means to say that believers everywhere throughout the time from Christ's ascension until His return should, could, or would have the tongues experience.
What about picking up serpents? Some groups practice that too, occasionally with fatal results. Like Pharaoh's magicians, non-believers do that also. But why do Pentecostals not emphasise this as much as tongues? Or drinking fatal poisons – why are Christians much more willing to speak in tongues than to pick up serpents and drink fatal poisons? Is it because it's easier to counterfeit speaking in tongues, to counterfeit casting out demons, and even to counterfeit healings? If I were a person blessed with the miracle of speaking in tongues, should I fear drinking poisons?
Perhaps I should fear counterfeiting speaking in tongues more than I fear drinking poisons. How appropriate, how safe, how righteous is it to counterfeit speaking for and in the name of God, that He has given the message one claims erroneously to have received from God?
Consider that Mark 16:17-18 does not suggest the topic is accidentally picking up serpents, like Paul's experience; it does not suggest accidental drinking of poison – it just says, “If they drink anything fatal it shall not injure them in the least”. Why ought not a Christian to proceed without qualms to drink poison furnished by a non-believer to exhibit the miraculous power of God, and the continuing presence of God?
Understand, I have no doubt whatever about God's having done those things through people in the age of the apostles. I also have no doubt about God's being able to do it in our age. I also have no doubt whatever that there are multitudes of Christians who, like myself, have prayed to God frequently that He would bless us with the experience of speaking in tongues if it is His will for us, and for our times.
One other cause of my doubts regarding the continuing intention of God to use the miracle of speaking in tongues in our times again has to do with the interpretation of tongues. Not once have I ever heard a person volunteer to translate for a foreign brother who was scheduled to preach for us and needed a translator, when the prospective volunteer to translate did not know the language of the person who was to speak. Why not? If the modern miraculous “interpreter of tongues” can really interpret, why do they never volunteer to interpret languages they don't know such as French, Russian or German into English? Why do modern speakers in tongues usually speak in unknown tongues to others who speak their own language? What is the purpose for a person who understands English to speak in an unknown tongue to others who understand English?
1Corinthians 14:13 says, “For this reason the man who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says”. And, in the 27th verse: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret”.
Frankly, I have no confidence whatever in the interpretations given by a person who is willing only to interpret “angelic” tongues and not be willing to interpret a language of man which he does not know.
In interpreting “languages of angels”, no man knows whether the interpretation is right or not right – even the person who “interprets” doesn't even know whether he is interpreting correctly or not! He has no way to verify that he interprets correctly or doesn't.
1Corinthians 13:1 mentions both “tongues of men” and “tongues of angels”. Unless an interpreter, for example one who does not know Spanish, is just as willing to interpret for one of our Spanish brethren who wishes to deliver a message to an English congregation, and interpret in the presence of those who know both Spanish and English, then I have no reason to believe he is correctly interpreting “tongues of angels”.
This is not a foolish challenge. The person who can demonstrate this can easily persuade us that he is indeed giving interpretations correctly to angelic tongues also.
Mark 16:17-18, sounds as though the experience would be common among believers, along with the other miracles. What other Scripture bears on the subject? What about 1Corinthians 13:8? It reads (NIV): “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away”. Tongues will be “stilled” – meaning what? meaning when?
I find this translation to be like the sports commentator who reports that one team “sank” another team; the next team, one “rolled over” the other team; and a third game, one team “walked on” the other team – fishing for some way to vary the speech pattern. It gets monotonous to just say that “this team won”, “that team won”, and “the other team won” for game after game. That's fine in sportscasting, but it doesn't make for good interpretation of the Bible.
The Berkeley Version is just as purposeless and unfaithful: “Love never fades out. As for prophesyings, they shall be rendered useless; as for tongues, they shall cease; as for knowledge, it shall lose its meaning”.
Some more examples:
“Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass” (Good News Bible); and,
“Love will never come to an end. Are there prophecies? their work will be over. Are there tongues of ecstasy? they will cease. Is there knowledge? it will vanish away” (New English Bible).
But what did the Greek manuscript say? The most nearly accurate translation of this passage I have found is like the American Standard Version: “Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away”.
The Greek word for both the actions on prophecy and knowledge is the very same Greek word, and there is no excuse for a different translation of the two. The meaning of these statements seems quite clear:
a) The miracle of the giving of prophecies will be discontinued by the action of God who provided the information for the prophecy.
b) It is obvious that knowledge not obtained miraculously continues to be gained; neither is it further obtained miraculously. It neither has been nor shall be done away. It is the obtaining of knowledge miraculously which has been discontinued.
Likewise, prophecies already given are not wiped from the slate – they continue to provide a mighty testimony to the foreknowledge of God and His verification of the work of His servants through whom they were given.
But about tongues? “They will cease” – just stop. When? The Bible does not say. Why? The Bible does not say. So what are we left with? We are left with the need for our brethren who believe they are miraculously speaking in a genuine tongue (either of angels or of men), to be willing to submit to verifiable tests:
1. Allow the tape-recording of tongues spoken during a meeting.
2. Give the recording to many different people who have the “gift” of interpretation. Their interpretations must be consistent and not leave out essential parts after repeated playing.
3. Do this with many different speakers, and many different interpreters. Let God be true – He is true. Are we true? God invites proof of what He prophesies.
4. Let the interpreters also interpret a sermon from a modern language of man they do not know, and his interpretation be corroborated by those who know both languages.
When did tongues cease? At the point where men were no longer able or willing to verify their interpretations, at the point where they began speaking in assemblies without interpreters, at the point where the other miracles were no longer common among true Christians, at the point where they refused to allow others to interpret and wished only to do it themselves.