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|“The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep SILENCE before him.”|
The gift of tongues is one of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:10). The gift of tongues is really the gift of language. It is the supernatural ability of speaking in a foreign language not learnt before. The Greek glossa (English: “glossary”) means “language.” Another word used to describe tongues is dialektos (English: “dialect”) (Acts 1:19, 2:6, 8 cf, Acts 1:19, 21:40, 22:2, 26:14). When the Apostles spoke with other tongues at Pentecost, they spoke in the languages or dialects of the respective nationalities present, viz, Persians, Asians, Egyptians, Italians, Arabians among others (Acts 2:9–11). Their speech was not gibberish or ecstatic nonsense. The people who heard the words understood them (Acts 2:6, 8). They said, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).
Modern-day tongues-speakers readily admit that they are not speaking in human languages. Their ecstatic utterances they say, are really angelic tongues. For support, they cite 1 Corinthians 13:1 where Paul mentioned the “tongues of angels.” But the question arises: What are the tongues of angels? What language do the angels actually speak? For sure, the angels do have the ability to communicate. In the Scriptures we find them speaking in human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek).
When the Charismatics say they speak not in human but angelic tongues, they misunderstand and misapply Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1. Paul was not arguing for the existence of angelic tongues. Love, not tongues, is the theme of 1 Corinthians 13. In his attempt to drive this point home, Paul used a hyperbole (ie, an intended exaggeration) here. He was not saying that he could speak in tongues of angels (or that there is such a thing as tongues of angels), understand all mysteries, have all knowledge, or move mountains. He was simply saying that even if he could do all those things, but did not have love, he would be a big zero. To understand 1 Corinthians 13:1–2 other than this is to miss Paul’s point altogether.
There are those who say they speak in tongues of angels for personal edification. They “feel good” after speaking in tongues. The Greek word for “edify”—oikodomeo —literally means “to build up.” It speaks of receiving instruction for intellectual improvement or spiritual enlightenment. It certainly does not mean “to feel good” as popularly thought. Edification involves the understanding. How am I edified if I do not understand what angelic tongues are, nor what they mean? To borrow Paul’s words, “I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). It is no wonder Paul said, “I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (1 Cor 14:19). In light of this, we conclude that charismatic tongues are not foreign languages but self-generated gibberish.
Some charismatics argue that the tongues they speak today are not “known” tongues (ie, foreign languages), but “unknown” ones (ie, ecstatic utterances) as found in 1 Corinthians 14. Is this a correct reading of 1 Corinthians 14?
It needs to be clarified that the “unknown tongue” (so KJV) of 1 Corinthians 14 is not ecstatic speech but foreign language. It is “unknown” in the sense that the spiritually gifted believer is able to speak in a foreign language he has never heard or learned before, and that it is unknown or unintelligible to the hearer who does not know or understand the language spoken. In ordinary circumstances, when a person speaks in tongues in his own native church, no man understands; only God understands since He understands all languages (1 Cor 14:2). Thus the one who speaks in tongues edifies only himself since without an interpreter or translator, he is the only one who understands what he is saying (1 Cor 14:4). Paul emphasised the importance of understanding, “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (1 Cor 14:19). It is clear that the unknown tongue Paul referred to consists of “words,” not “sounds.” Ecstatic tongues-speaking produces a lot of sounds, but is gibberish and meaningless. That there is a legitimate form of tongues-speaking which is ecstatic is most foreign to Paul’s mind.
The main theme of 1 Corinthians 14 is the importance of understanding for edification. Edification (1 Cor 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26) comes by way of understanding (1 Cor 14:2, 7, 9, 14, 15, 16, 19). Paul pointed out that prophesying is superior to tongues-speaking. The gift of prophecy is the gift of being able to foretell and forthtell the will and word of God. When the prophet speaks, he speaks to his own people in their own native tongue. The members of the church benefit from the words spoken because they are able to understand the message given. Paul makes this very clear with an illustration from music (1 Cor 14:7–8). Music is music only if there is a tune or melody. Likewise, a language has vocabulary, grammatical forms, and syntactical structures. As Paul said, “There are ... so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification” (1 Cor 14:10). When a person prays in tongues, he prays with understanding—his mind is working, he knows what he is saying and can identify the language he is speaking (1 Cor 14:15). A genuine tongues speaker would be able to analyse the language he has spoken by identifying the different words he has used, and their respective meanings. The Holy Spirit is perfect. The gifts that come from Him are perfect. The tongues-speaker when endowed with the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language would be perfectly proficient in that language. He would be able to write out the content of his speech, list the vocabulary, and demonstrate the grammatical-syntactical relationship of the words. Are modern-day tongues-speakers able to do this?
For the gift of tongues to be beneficial to the congregation in general, the gift of interpretation is required. 1 Corinthians 14:27–28 says, “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, ... let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” Since our God is a God of order and not of confusion (1 Cor 14:33), it is necessary to conclude that the tongues speaker understands what he says in order for him to confirm that the interpreter has translated his tongue correctly. Otherwise, false interpreters could easily arise to give a spurious message without being detected. Those who have the gift of interpretation also serve to check false tongues-speakers because if their speech is gibberish, they would be able to authoritatively dismiss it as spurious. Just as a prophet is judged by another prophet (1 Cor 14:29 cf, v32), the tongues-speakers are judged by the interpreters, and vice versa. If there were no such checks in place, there would be chaos, and deception would be rampant.
According to charismatics, the “mysteries” they speak through tongues are understandable only to God and not to man. Only God can decipher or decode these “mysteries.” If this is what the biblical word “mysteries” means, then it would be very similar to the mysteries of the pagan religions. Speaking ecstatically is not uncommon among the heathens. Their priests communicate to their gods in strange, undecipherable tongues. The mysteries of the Bible are meant to be understood. Biblical mysteries are actually God’s truths hidden in the past but now revealed in Christ (Col 1:6). These truths are meant to be known. Jesus said, “it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 13:11). Repeatedly, the Apostles in their epistles reveal and explain the mysteries of the kingdom in terms which all can understand (Rom 11:25, 16:25; 1 Cor 2:7, 4:1, 15:51; Eph 1:9, 3:3–4, 6:19; Col 1:26–27). Intelligibility and understanding are key concepts in the subject of tongues-speaking.
Groaning in Tongues?
Romans 8:26 says, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Some charismatics argue that the groanings of the Spirit here refer to ecstatic tongues-speaking. Can this be so? This is another example of taking the text out of context to make it mean what it does not mean.
Tongues-speaking is furthest from Paul’s mind in Romans 8. So, what is this groaning of the Spirit? The groanings are the Spirit’s intercessory prayers for the saints: “but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us ... And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26–27). The Holy Spirit has a prayer ministry where He prays separately for Christians. Sometimes in prayer, we agonise over what to pray for because we are unsure of God’s will in a particular situation. We are unable to express in words our deep desires. At this point, the Spirit takes over to make sure that what we ask for will be in accordance to God’s will. We also know that the “groanings” do not refer to tongues-speaking because in the earlier verses, the same word is used of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:22–23). Surely the groanings of creation cannot mean that creation is speaking in tongues! The whole creation is groaning because of the curse of sin (cf, Gen 4:14–20). All Christians are groaning because of their daily struggle with sin.
Paul expresses only too well what our groanings are in Romans 7:14–24, “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” The “groanings” are therefore the deep and inexpressible desires of the heart and mind. We long for the day of resurrection when God will deliver us completely from our sinful condition by giving us a transformed body like Christ’s (2 Cor 5:1–4). We long for the millennium, when Christ will restore His creation to its original Edenic glory (Isa 11:1–9). The heartfelt cry of all creation and all Christians is: “Lord Jesus, come back soon!”
Let it be reiterated that the groanings of the Spirit in Romans 8:26 have nothing to do with tongues-speaking. JK
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