The Gift of Tongues and the Holy Spirit

This is another response to texted questions during the sermon on the Holy Spirit.

What is the difference on the tongues that were spoken during the Day of Pentecost and in the book of Acts and the Tongues that are spoken in the rest of Scripture?

The role of the Spiritual gift of tongues is one of the most controversial doctrines in Christianity.  Basically put, this gift is the ability to speak in languages not understood by the speaker.  Tongues can either be in the context of mission as a powerful demonstration of God’s spirit crossing language and cultural barriers, but it can also be used in the church for edification or as a private spiritual prayer language.

Most of the controversy has to do with the use of this gift in the New Testament book of Acts, hence the question.  In Acts 2:1-4 the Holy Spirit comes upon the first believers in a miraculous and clear way.  His presence fills the room in the form of a wind, and tongues of fire rest on each of them, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues as the Spirit enables.  But the scene quickly moves us from a room into the streets where thousands of Jewish people from all over the world are staying as they celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.  Most of these Jews do not speak Hebrew well because they live in many other places and countries.  As the first Christians speak in tongues a miracle takes places as the languages that are unknown to the speaker are understood by these hearers and they hear the praises of Jesus voiced in their own language.  Interest is peaked in what is happening which leads to Peter preaching the Gospel and 3,000 people are saved and baptized on that day.  In this case the speaking in tongues was given to the entire group as evidence of the filling of the Spirit with the outcome being the conversion of many.

There are two other occurrences of tongues in Acts, one in Acts 10:44-46 and Acts 19:1-6.  In each of these situations people repent of sin and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  The result is that they are given the gift of the Spirit with an evidence of speaking in tongues.  But the leap of logic here is to declare that the evidence for every person who believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues.  There are myriads of people who are saved, but nothing in the book of Acts states that all of them had this special demonstration of the Spirit.  Also, we are not told in these occurrences exactly what the tongues were and if there were others who understood the languages.  Furthermore, there are signs other than tongues in the book of Acts that demonstrate the filling of the Spirit (see Acts 4:31).

Groups who come to the conclusion that speaking in tongues is THE evidence (rather than an evidence) of the Holy Spirit do so by breaking a basic rule of Biblical hermeneutics, which is the art and science of Biblical interpretation.  That rule is that we should never from doctrine from the narrative sections of Scripture without that doctrine being developed elsewhere.  Acts is a story or narrative, which means that it is telling us events, not trying to teach doctrine.  Every narrative will contain events that are specific to the story, but not designed to teach as an eternal truth.  Let me illustrate what I mean.  In the story of Acts many of the earliest Christians sold all of their belongings in order to help the poor and live in deep community with each other (Acts 4:32-37).  We don’t hear voices of people calling for this sort of commune living as a doctrine of the church.  This is part of the story of Acts, but is not a binding thing on all Christians, even though the principles of caring for the poor, living in community, helping each other, etc., are specified in other places.  In the same way, the text of Acts is telling us the story of people whose lives are changed by the Gospel and are filled with the Spirit.  In some instances the evidence of the Spirit is speaking in tongues.  But Acts is not trying to build the doctrine that speaking in tongues is the evidence of the Spirit.  If it was we would also find this idea taught in other sections of the Bible where the writer is trying to teach doctrine.

The other major section of the New Testament that deals with this and other miraculous gifts is Acts 12-14.  Time here does not allow for a detailed explanation of these chapters but I would encourage your reading.  But a few things are clear.  First, God is the giver of all gifts as he shapes and forms the body of Christ.  Second, each gift is needed (1 Corinthians 12:21-26).  Tongues is one of those gifts.  Third, no one person has all the gifts and no gift is possessed by all people (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).  In these verses Paul asks rhetorically if all people have each of these gifts.  Of course the answer is “no”, so when he asks the question of tongues he expects the same answer.  Not all have the gift of tongues. In chapter 14 Paul then explains the use of the gift of tongues and prophecy in the context of the Corinthian church.  It is here where he shares that tongues can either be evidenced in church or in one’s prayer life.  In church it is to be accompanied by someone who can interpret the tongue so that the entire church can be edified (I Corinthians 14:11).  As a prayer language tongues takes the person with this gifting into a deeper level of spiritual prayer where his or her spirit communicates deeply with God (1 Corinthians 14:13-15).

Ultimately the answer to this question depends on what is meant by “difference”.  For the person exercising the gift, it seems that the experience would be the same, that the person is communicating in languages that are foreign to the speaker as a result of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.  But depending on the circumstance, there can be a vast difference in the way the gift is used, either for the spiritual depth of the person, the edification of the church, or the advancement of God’s mission to people speaking other languages.

A final thought here about the gift of tongues.  In reading Scripture it is clear that the Bible teaches that tongues is a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit.  Yet, another question involves how that and some of the other miraculous gifts function today in the church.  Some hold a position called Cessationism which believes that the miraculous gifts were given by the Spirit during the era in Christianity when the church did not have the New Testament.  Since the New Testament has been given and put into a clear work we no longer need gifts of revelation, where God speaks on that level, and therefore these gifts have passed away.  We don’t see prophets or tongues as a gift because we don’t need them a cessationist would argue, we have the complete Bible.  A second position we will call the Charismatic view (the Greek word for Spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12-14 is charismata, meaning a gift of God’s grace).  While the viewpoint in this group varies, the basic idea is that all of the gifts are available to the church today.  The third view, the Pentecostal view not only holds that all the gifts are available, but they also teach that speaking in tongues is THE evidence that a person has the Holy Spirit.  As a church, we at Genesis would not agree with the Pentecostal view, but we are open handed on the other two views of gifts, meaning that we allow for a broad range of understanding in these areas.

There you go!  God bless.

Comments are closed.