The apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts so that they would not be uninformed and would have their faith confirmed concerning these gifts. We have noticed in our studies thus far that spiritual gifts were given through the Holy Spirit when an apostle laid his hands on another Christian (Acts 8:15-18; Romans 1:9-11; 2 Timothy 1:6-7). We also learned that spiritual gifts were not activated by the individual but were empowered by God (1 Corinthians 12:6). Finally, we noticed that the gift of prophecy was a gift of speaking the very words of God that were always without error (2 Peter 1:21). The person did not speak his own words from the thoughts given to him. The person was carried along by the Holy Spirit and spoke as God moved these people to speak.
Another gift of the Holy Spirit that we see in this list that causes much attention today is speaking in tongues. Interestingly, just as speaking in tongues has popularity today, it also had popularity in the Corinthian church. This is one of the reasons why Paul must write to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts. The Corinthian Christians had elevated the gift of tongues as superior to all other spiritual gifts. Using our text today we must consider what is the gift of tongues and how these tongues were used.
What Are Tongues?
To begin, I want to quote Wayne Grudem from his book, Systematic Theology. The reason I want to do so is because Grudem is a continuationist, that is, he believes that spiritual gifts are still in use today. So even though he believes speaking in tongues and other gifts are still today, his definition of the gift of tongues is helpful.
“It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glossa, translated “tongue,” is not used only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth, but also to mean “language.” In the New Testament passages where speaking in tongues is discussed, the meaning “languages” is certainly in view. It is unfortunate, therefore, that English translations have continued to use the phrase “speaking in tongues,” which is an expression not otherwise used in ordinary English and which gives the impression of a strange experience, something completely foreign to ordinary human life. But if English translations were to use the expression “speaking in languages,” it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader a sense much closer to what first century Greek speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians” (Systematic Theology, 1069).
Grudem is exactly right. Speaking in tongues in the scriptures simply means speaking in another language. You will notice that a couple translations are willing to translate this Greek word as such.
“…to another, different kinds of languages, to another, interpretation of languages.” (1 Corinthians 12:10 HCSB)
“Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.” (1 Corinthians 12:10 NLT)
To call this “the gift of tongues” seems to give the gift an air of mystery and intrigue. But when we call this gift, “the gift of languages” we lose all the mystery. The gift was the ability for a person to speak in another language in which they previously had not been trained. We see an example of this in Acts 2. In Acts 2:4 we read concerning the apostles: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4 ESV). Notice what this meant two verses later.
“And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:6 ESV)
Notice that there was nothing ecstatic in what they were doing. Notice that we are not told anything about feeling something or having an emotion come over them. Speaking in tongues was nothing more than speaking in another language, a foreign language that was previously unknown. David Garland, a biblical scholar, writes in his commentary, “‘Language’ is the most natural meaning of the Greek word and best explains how tongues can be differentiated into various kinds” (Garland, 584). This point comes from 1 Corinthians 12:10. Carefully read and notice that Paul says that there are “various kinds of tongues.” How can there be various kinds of tongues? Paul is saying that there are various kinds of languages and different Christians possessed the gift of different languages of the world.
I would like to take a moment to quote some words from D.A. Carson. Carson is also a continuationist, that is, he believes these spiritual gifts are still in practice. He wrote a commentary on 1 Corinthians 12-14 called “Showing The Spirit.” Even though he is a continuationist, he makes these observations concerning speaking in tongues.
“I shall discuss Acts 2 in the last chapter, but for the moment I must merely register my conviction that what Luke describes at Pentecost are real, known, human languages. More careful word studies have shown that in none of the texts adduced by Behm or the standard lexical does glossa ever denote noncognitive utterance” (Carson, 80).
“On balance, then, the evidence favors the view that Paul thought the gift of tongues was a gift of real languages, that is, languages that were cognitive, whether of men or of angels” (Carson, 83).
“To my knowledge there is universal agreement among linguists who have taped and analyzed thousands of examples of modern tongue-speaking that the contemporary phenomenon is not any human language” (Carson, 83).
“What about the contemporary gift of interpretation? A few years ago a friend of mine attended a charismatic service and rather cheekily recited some of John 1:1-18 in Greek as his contribution to speaking in tongues. Immediately there was an “interpretation” that bore no relation whatsoever to the Johannine prologue. Two people with the gift of interpretation have on occasion been asked to interpret the same recorded tongues message and the resulting different and conflicting interpretations have been justified on the grounds that God gives different interpretations to different people. That is preposterous, if the interpretations are wildly dissimilar, because it would force us to conclude that there is no univocal, cognitive content to the tongues themselves” (Carson, 87).
“More commonly, at least in my experience, triteness triumphs: ‘Interpretations prove to be as stereotyped, vague, and uninformative as they are spontaneous, fluent, and confident.'” (Carson, 87).
Somehow, Carson goes on to say that this does not negate that there is the gift of tongues today even though all the evidence he has seen and presented proves otherwise. Even honest continuationists recognize that what is passed off as tongue speaking today is not what we see in the scriptures. If we consider the history of the church, we find that the gift of languages was universally considered to be the supernatural ability to speak authentic foreign languages that the speaker had not learned.
Turn your attention back to 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. Paul gives a long list of the various gifts of the Spirit, including the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing spirits, various languages, and the interpretation of languages. Who gave these gifts? Notice in verse 11 that it is the Spirit who apportions to each one as he wills. Notice in verses 8-10 that Paul says that one person would receive one gift and one person would receive another gift. No one had all the gifts. Christians had different gifts. Who decided who received what gift? Paul says that the Spirit decided. The individual could not decide or will himself into having a gift. In 1 Corinthians 12:18-19 Paul says again that God chose the arrangement of who received what gift because there would no value if all had the same gift. Notice that Paul said the same thing to the Romans.
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— (Romans 1:11 ESV)
Paul did not decide what gift a person received. God decided. Today people will talk about how you can have the gift of tongues if you pray for it or seek after it. They will say if you are spiritual enough then you also can have this gift. Some churches will go so far to say that it is the truly spiritual ones who have the gift of tongues and less spiritual ones do not. Therefore the reason you do not have the gift of tongues is because of a lack of faith. I want us to see from this text that this is entirely false. God decided who receive a particular gift. This gives us more information. Spiritual gifts were given when an apostle laid his hands on a Christian. But the Spirit determined, not the apostle nor the Christian, what gift that Christian would receive. The amount of faith had nothing to do with this. God decided what gift was given. Paul says this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 12:11.
Now, this leads to an important consideration and my challenge to those who claim miraculous spiritual gifts today. If speaking in tongues is still today, where are the rest of the spiritual gifts? Look at the long list Paul gives. God gives the gifts and God distributes these gifts because there is no value in a church having only one or two gifts (1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 30). Notice 1 Corinthians 12:30. All do not speak in tongues. If God is still distributing spiritual gifts, then where are the gifts of miracles? Where are the gifts of wisdom? Where are the gifts of knowledge? Where are the gifts of distinguishing spirits?
Further, if true spiritual gifts exist today, then we would expect to see these gifts use to show the false claims of the Spirit to be counterfeit. Just as Philip used the true gifts of the Spirit to show that Simon the sorcerer was false in Acts 8, we should see the same today so that we would follow the true works of the Spirit rather than these false works.
Speaking in tongues was the speaking of actual foreign languages, not gibberish. It was miraculous because the person was not trained in that language but now spoke the language fluently. This gift could only be given by an apostle placing his hands on a Christian. Since all the apostles have died, these gifts cannot be transferred to anyone today.
Please think about this for a moment. What would be the point of the Holy Spirit revealing in an unknown, unintelligible language only to need another person with the gift of interpretation reveal the meaning so all could understand? I hope that we see that this does not make sense. Why would God reveal himself to particular person in gibberish to all people so that another person could interpret? Why not cut out the middle man and just reveal in a language that is understood by all? A picture that makes much more sense is that the Holy Spirit revealed his will in a language that some in the church understood. A Christian with the gift of interpretation revealed this to the rest who did not speak the language. This fits what we see later in 1 Corinthians 14 when Paul gives further directions about using the gift of languages.
The message for us today is that we have the complete revealed will of the Lord written down by the apostles and prophets so that we can know God (Ephesians 3:3-5). God blessed the churches in the first century with these gifts until the apostles and prophets could record God’s word which would be preserved for all time to bring people to himself.