Speaking in Tongues

Many Christians are skeptical of the practice of speaking in tongues. This skepticism is warranted, it seems to me. I have been a Christian my entire life (I’m now 73), in different denominations, and I have never seen anyone speak in tongues—except some gibberish on YouTube. If speaking in tongues is a valid expression of the Christian faith, why aren’t all Christians doing it?

Preterists have a good argument why tongue-speaking is no longer valid. In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 Paul teaches that speaking in tongues was to CEASE (along with super-naturally revealed “knowledge” and “prophecies”). It was never to be a permanent part of Christianity.

1 Corinthians 13:10 tells us that tongues were to cease when that which was “perfect” had come. The Greek word for “perfect” here is TELEIOUS, which means completeness or maturity. Paul compared these things to still being a child and the doing away of them at the coming of maturity (1 Corinthians 13:11). Clearly, the perfection of which Paul speaks here is the same perfection that he and the other New Testament writers foresaw immediately ahead of them (Hebrews 7:18-19; 8:13; 9:9; 10:1-4).

The fullness of Christ would be accomplished (Ephesians 4:13—TELEIOUS); Christ would be the perfect tabernacle (Hebrews 9:11—TELEIOUS; Revelation 21:22); all prophecy would be fulfilled (Luke 21:22, 32, 36; Revelation 1:1-3; 22:6-20); the Old Covenant would be ushered out (Hebrews 8:13); and our redemption would be complete and perfected with finality (Luke 21:28; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Hebrews 9:28).

Acts 2:6 and 1 Corinthians 14:9 teach that tongues should be UNDERSTOOD. New Testament tongues were in foreign languages and were for public consumption. But modern tongue-speaking is unintelligible gibberish (and often private utterances), so it is not scriptural.  Tongues were a tool to get the church started in the first century (1 Corinthians 14:4)—a tool to reach unbelievers with the gospel. But modern tongue-speaking, if heard by unbelievers, leads them to believe that Christians are spooky, and drives them away. It is a stumbling block to the gospel! Again, modern tongue-speaking is not scriptural.

O. Palmer Robertson asserts in his book (The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today) also notes that “New Testament tongues were as sign indicating a radical change in the direction of redemptive history.” It should be obvious that such radical change ended in the first century.

The charismatic will sometimes respond, “But I have seen someone speaking in tongues that was indeed understood by someone else in the room.” My answer is that we should interpret what we observe in light of Scripture, rather than interpret Scripture in light of things we observe. In other words, if Scripture said tongues were to cease, then there may be some other explanation for that happening that someone observed.

There also seems to be an element of judgment in Paul’s teaching on tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:21-22, Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:9-12, where Isaiah in his day warned of the approaching invasion of apostate Israel by the Assyrians, a foreign nation which spoke in a foreign tongue. But as Isaiah predicted, “they would not listen” (cf. Deuteronomy 28:49). Given Paul’s frequent warnings about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple about which Jesus prophesied, this may also tie to AD 70.

The Scripture identifies two categories of “gifts of the Spirit”—ones that were to cease and ones that are ongoing. Charismatics sometimes fail to make that distinction and assume that because some gifts remain that all necessarily remain. 1 Corinthians 12 lists numerous gifts of the Holy Spirit including the gift of healing. In verse 13 only three are listed that would cease—knowledge, tongues, and prophecy. (“Knowledge” probably refers to the canon of Scripture. “Prophecy” refers to the eschatological promises Jesus said would end in his generation, per Luke 21:22; etc.) The gift of healing was not one of those three. So, we can infer that miraculous healing and other gifts are still extant. The Holy Spirit did not quit working and providing gifts to people after AD 70. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of believers today in many ways. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is responsible for bringing people to faith!

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