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The Gift of Tongues

Eugene Prewitt

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Eugene Prewitt

Director, The Institute of East Asia Training (IEAT)

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  • 2007-03-07T00:00:00-08:00u00to00
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Copyright ©2007 Eugene Prewitt.

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Of the type of religions here in America is a type of Pentecostal church where they carry snakes. You ever heard about the snake-handling Pentecostals? They carry snakes, and they handle them as well as speaking in tongues. And if you might wonder, Nikki, why they would do such a silly thing, it’s because of what it says in Mark 16. You all there? Mark 16, and we’re looking near the end of the chapter. Verse 17 says, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they” (what does it say?) “cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

 

That Pentecostal church is perhaps the most thorough-going of any because many of those churches will come to this passage and say that what is the evidence that you believe? What’s the evidence in this passage that you believe? It’s that you speak in tongues, but is that the only evidence in this passage?

 

And before I go into a Bible study on speaking in tongues, I want to just have you observe a few things in this passage. If you don’t have Bibles, you’ll just have to listen so carefully. Mark 16 is followed immediately in point of time by Acts, chapter 2. That is, if we had this as a chronology, Mark 16, Mark 17 would be Pentecost. And in the book of Acts, do we find all of these signs? Here are the signs that are mentioned: The signs of speaking with new tongues, the sign of healing, the sign of taking up serpents, and then there’s the sign of drinking deadly things and it not hurting them. I will admit for a minute, though, until we talk about it, that you don’t see that in the book of Acts. But does anyone take up a deadly serpent in the book of Acts? Who’s that? And now, let me ask, does he take it up in church on purpose? No, he doesn’t take it up in church on purpose.

 

And how about when it comes to dispossession, does Paul dispossess anyone, for example, in the book of Acts? Does he do it as soon as he meets her? When does he do it? You know he does it after a time when it is important for the progress of the work that he’s doing. If I could say this thought as simply as I know how, these signs don’t follow at the moment of being filled with the Spirit, at least the ones that, other than speaking in tongues. When do they handle serpents? It’s when they have serpents bite them. And when is it that they dispossess people who are filled with the wrong spirit? It’s when they need to.

 

What about this gift of tongues? There’s one more thing to observe in this passage. Is there an adjective before the word tongues? What’s the adjective? Now, here comes the question: Is it new to the speaker or new to the hearer or a new invention in the universe? If it was a new invention in the universe, it wouldn’t be the gift of the tongue of angels. Does that make sense to you what I’m saying? And the only other options are new to the hearer or new to the speaker. But it wouldn’t be anything special to have it be new to the hearer. So it must mean new to the speaker. And do you see an S on the end of the word tongue?

 

How many languages were there prior to the Tower of Babel? Maybe this is just an interesting side point to you, that God had said before the Tower of Babel that God’s people were to spread over the earth, and those that obeyed Him spread over the earth. Those that disobeyed built the Tower of Babel, and God, of course, messed up their tower. And then He scattered them with their languages. And now everyone is scattered. Do you follow what I’m saying so far? That God’s people have an advantage. What’s the advantage? They all speak the same language; whereas, the scattered disobedient don’t have that advantage.

 

And that’s just a side benefit to the sermon to let you know that following God’s ways does have unintended advantages. There are benefits to doing the things that He says that can’t necessarily be foreseen.

 

In the book of Acts, the gift of tongues shows up in connection with the filling with the Spirit three times. That’s in Acts, chapter 2, and Acts, chapter 10, and Acts, chapter 19. In Acts 2 it’s very obvious that the Adventist position on tongues is right. Do you all follow me there? And most Adventists are not troubled by Acts 2. In Acts 2, what’s very clear is that the gift of tongues is a gift of human languages. The people that hear them understand them. They say, “How do we understand in the tongue in which we were born and that they all speak like that?”

 

In Acts 10, it doesn’t get into those kinds of details, but it does say something about it in the next chapter. Turn with me in your Bibles to Acts, chapter 11. Acts, chapter 11, and I’ll look for the verse number, verses 15 to 17. Acts, chapter 11, and looking at verse 15, this is the apostle reviewing what happened in the chapter before. He says, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them” (what does it say?) “as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the” (what does it say?) “like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?”

 

Think it through for a minute. The gift of tongues in Acts 10, was it the same as or different than the gift of tongues in Acts 2? The testimony of the apostle was that it was the same; it was the “like gift.”

 

But there is a passage that is quite troubling to Adventists in regard to the gift of tongues, one that, when we read it, we’re just so glad that we have Acts 2 that we can go read afterwards because it has verses that don’t make much sense to us sometimes. Anyone know what chapter that is? It’s 1 Corinthians, chapter 14, and my goal in the next 26 minutes or so is that you can read 1 Corinthians 14 for the rest of your life happily and without confusion.

 

Turn with me there in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians, chapter 14. We’re turning to chapter 14, but maybe we should make some observations from 12 and 13 to kind of ease our way into it. If you’ll look in chapter 12, 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, and we’re looking at verse 10. Speaking about the gifts that are given, varieties of gifts to different people, it says, “To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another [divers] kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues.” Again there’s that super-helpful S on the end of the word “kind,” and the end of the word “tongue.”

 

How many languages are there in Heaven? There ought not to be more than one because multiple languages came as a curse; does that make sense? And here we have kinds of languages, and we have tongues, a variety of them. And then it has, as a separate gift, “interpretation of tongues.” And let’s compare the two theories for a minute in our minds.

 

Here’s the one theory: that the gift of tongues is the gift of the heavenly language. And so, the Spirit comes upon the man, and he speaks the heavenly language that no one understands. Then the Spirit comes on another man, and he interprets the heavenly language because no one else can understand it. That’s the one theory.

 

And do you see in that theory that there is some redundancy? That a lot of trouble could have been saved if the first person just would have spoken in the language that everyone understands.

 

But now let’s come to the other theory, that this is the gift of languages speaking to a multilingual body. That is, where does the gift of tongues first show up? Does it show up in a congregation where the people speak one language or two languages? No, it shows up in a body where the congregation speaks multiple languages, in the book of Acts, chapter 2. And where else does it show up in the Bible? It shows up in Ephesus and Corinth. These were port cities where the people spoke a variety of languages.

 

And now here comes a man speaking in one of the languages of the congregation, but does everyone in the congregation understand the language he’s speaking in? No. And what is the benefit? Here is an interpreter, and he’s speaks in another language. Really, the interpreter has to be a very gifted man, doesn’t he, to hear one language and communicate to another. You know, we even do that today when we have multilingual congregations. We have interpreters. This isn’t any proof, but it helps you begin to evaluate the value of the two theories connected with what’s written.

 

First Corinthians, chapter 12, and we’re looking down to verse 29; actually, we need to go to verse 28, “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that,” that is, fourth or below, “miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments,” and then listen carefully; what’s the next phrase say? “Diversities of tongues.” When we talk about tongues, is the Bible pretty consistent about the fact that there’s a variety of them? You know, it is very consistent that there is a variety. And then comes the question, “Are all apostles?” What’s the obvious answer? No. “Are all prophets?” The answer is no. “Are all teachers?” No. “Are all workers of miracles?” No. Listen, “Have all the gifts of healing?” No. “Do all speak with tongues?” Only in churches that are confused because the answer in this passage is obviously no.

 

But chapter 13, verse 1, is sometimes a little troubling to people who understand the rest because it says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” oh, there is it is. The tongues of who? Angels. And we thought it was the languages of men. But before you panic too much about this comparison, you should notice the next verse where it says, “And though I have the gift of prophecy,” and listen carefully, “and understand” (what does it say?) “all mysteries, and all knowledge…”

 

Now, have you ever met anyone who understands all mysteries and all knowledge? What very apparently Paul is doing in this chapter is saying that, “Even if I could speak the language of Heaven, and I didn’t have charity, it would not be significant. And even if I had so much understanding that I understood everything and didn’t have charity, it wouldn’t make me significant.” But is he, by the second phrase, saying that it’s possible for you to understand everything and not have charity? No, he’s not saying that. He’s using an extreme illustration to show that no matter what, if you don’t have charity, you are not significant in God’s work.

 

But now we’ll go to chapter 14 where we aim to finish. First Corinthians, chapter 14, and we’re looking at verse 1. It says, “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts.” This might be practical for the whole bunch of us who never have thought about speaking in tongues. Is there something you ought to be desiring? You ought to be praying for spiritual gifts. Sometimes we end up confusing our churches by having them get the idea that they all have spiritual gifts, and now they just need to find them. But the Bible indicates the spiritual gifts are something to aspire for, something you would pray for, something you would ask for, something you would desire, and you shouldn’t just assume that you have it.

 

In fact, we had left off 12:31; that passage said that you should earnestly covet the best gifts. Chapter 14:1 says, “Desire spiritual gifts, but more particularly that you may prophesy.”

 

So, here are the spiritual gifts; they were numbered off: Apostles, prophets, teachers, but really to us, the gift of apostleship isn’t made available. That was a foundation stone set up for the church, and after apostles, the next gift was prophets, and that’s what we ought to aspire to. That even sounds dangerous to me to say that we should aspire to be prophets. I’ll have to talk more about that some other time, but it’s what it says in verse 1. Verse 2 says, “For he that speaks in a tongue speaks not unto men, but unto God: for no man understands him; howbeit in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” That’s one of those three confusing verses. It sounds like the man who is speaking in tongues isn’t speaking to communicate truth. It sounds like that he’s talking to himself and to God. And that doesn’t match our idea very well, does it?

 

It doesn’t match our idea very well, this idea. But listen carefully what’s going on. Paul isn’t saying that this is what should happen. He’s saying that this is what does happen that shouldn’t happen. He says, when you desire a gift, you should desire that you should prophesy because this is what goes wrong, that he that speaks in a tongue that people don’t understand, he’s speaking unto God. Now, here’s the question: Why is he speaking unto God? Is there an answer in the verse? Why is he speaking unto God? It’s because there’s not anyone else in church that gets what he’s saying.

 

And what does Paul say? Does he say that this is a good thing? He’s saying that it’s because of this weakness that you ought to rather desire the gift of prophecy. Going on, it says, “Howbeit, in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that it says that the Spirit of God speaking through him is giving mysterious truths for us all to understand. The fact of the matter is, that who understands him? No one. What it’s saying is that he, with his mind, is saying things that no one gets. The word “spirit” there being equivalent to mind. No one understands what he’s communicating. And, again, it’s not being exalted as the norm. It’s being talked about as the problem. The problem in Corinth was people using their gift of a foreign language when there was no one around that could understand what they were saying, and it didn’t benefit anybody. And so, it wasn’t the thing to aim for.

 

Verse 3, “But he that prophesies speaks unto men to build them up, and exhortation, and comfort.” This is what he’s doing. “He that speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” Is it true that when you speak something positive that it builds yourself up? Is it true? You know it’s true. This is another practical lesson for those of us who will never speak in tongues. If you will just learn the lesson of this verse and begin speaking good things; if you’ll speak faith and courage, for example, it will give you faith and courage. Speaking good things will build yourself up. But there is a condition, to only build yourself up if you understand what you’re saying.

 

In fact, when we read, well, we haven’t gotten to that verse yet. But you understand the implication of this? If he’s building himself up by speaking these things, it must be at least one person in the room understands the language that he’s using, and that would be him. That matches our idea of the gift of tongues very well, but it doesn’t match this idea at all.

 

Verse 5, “I would that you all spake with tongues but rather that you prophesied: for greater is he that prophesies than he that speaks with tongues, unless he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.” What is the benefit? Paul is saying there’s no benefit to the church of speaking in a foreign language unless there is someone to interpret so that someone understands exactly that.

 

Verse 6 is so helpful. It says, “Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” According to verse 6, tongues is not a source of truth. That is, if I knew Spanish, and I began to speak to you all in Spanish, some of you here would understand me, but unless I was speaking to you things from the Bible or things that were true or something inspired from Heaven, my gift of Spanish would not really benefit you even though you understood me. In other words, speaking has no inherent value. Did you ever think about that, that speaking has no inherent value? You’ve heard this term, words are cheap? It’s true. What is it that gives value to words? It’s a source of truth, like the Bible or like prophecy or something like that.

 

This verse wouldn’t make any sense in this idea where the gift of tongues is considered to be an asset to the church, even if there’s no other revelation. Or, according to this verse, you could use the gift of tongues without having any source of revelation. Said another way, if someone here stood up and began speaking in a foreign language that we knew they didn’t know before, and someone that didn’t know the language began to interpret it, should you assume that what he’s saying is true? According to 1 Corinthians, the gift of tongues is not the gift of inspiration; it is the gift of a language that is only helpful when combined with some source of inspiration. So that a man speaking tongues can speak as falsely as a man speaking in his own native language. It’s just a gift of language.

 

We don’t have time to go verse through verse through the whole thing; out time is almost up, but we are going to look at a couple verses near the end. It’s not really near the end, it’s just further on down. Look at verse, oh, I want to read about the poor man who visits church. Just a minute. Look at verse 22. First Corinthians 14, verse 22, it says, “Wherefore tongues are a sign,” is that in harmony with what we read in Mark 16? Tongues are a sign is what it said there, they are a sign of those that believe. But notice what it says, “Tongues are a sign, not to them which believe, but to them which believe not.”

 

If someone asked you, “Do you speak in tongues?” do you see that they are trying to use the sign backwards? They are a believer, in their view, and they’re trying to find out whether or not you speak in tongues as if it’s a sign to those that believe. Well, of course, that’s not what it was ever for. “It’s a sign to those who believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” Let’s just make it real clear in our heads. Here are two gifts for two different classes. Which gift is for believers? That would be like the testimonies; it’s for you. And which gift is for unbelievers? Tongues. That would be for the people in Timbuktu and not for you. It’s real simple in that verse, isn’t it?

 

Now, let’s go on to one of the most interesting stories. “If, therefore, the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there comes in one that is unlearned,” now that “unlearned” is a very helpful word to us. So here’s the whole church speaking in tongues, and a visitor walks in, and his eyes get big. Does he understand what the people are saying? Why doesn’t he, according to the verse? He’s unlearned. Now, think it through for a minute. Does that tell you whether or not these are human languages or heavenly languages? What kind of languages would you acquire through learning? That would be human languages. Don’t you see it simply? If he comes in, and he’s unlearned…We’ll go on reading, “…or unbelievers, will they not say that you are mad?”

 

Now, it’s kind of ironic. Which gift was for unbelievers? Tongues. And now here comes an unbeliever, and does the gift help him? No! In fact, he begins to think the church is crazy. Do you understand the irony in that situation? The tongues is for unbelievers, but it doesn’t help the unbelievers. What can you learn from it? The gift of tongues is for unbelievers who understand what is being said. And why isn’t it for this particular unbeliever? Because he doesn’t understand what is being said.

 

Verse 24, “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believes not, or one unlearned…” So here comes the man into the church where people are prophesying. He’s unlearned; he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Is he benefitted by the prophesying? You know the passage says he is benefitted some. Now, that’s kind of odd, isn’t it because the gift of prophecy, who’s it for? It’s for believers. What Paul is saying is that, in church, even if you prophesy, which is the kind of thing for church, it still could benefit an unbeliever some because he can understand what’s being said. But if you speak in tongues in church, it’s not going to benefit the unbeliever if he doesn’t understand it, even though it was a gift that was made specifically for him.

 

If you want more on this topic, there is an article called “Tongues,” available at canvassing.org or an updated version available from yours truly that will just go through this whole chapter. And I’d like you to understand that it’s not a complex idea in the New Testament. You don’t need to be embarrassed when speaking to anyone else. And the way we understand the gift of tongues is the only rational way to understand it. And every verse that’s there is sensible when lined up with what we understand, and it just doesn’t line up too well with what anyone else understands.

 

But for the closing thought, it says in that chapter, that if you do speak with tongues in church, then you should do it one at a time, and at the most, three of you should do it. That’s just a little verse for you to put in your little arsenal that you can remember if you ever have someone who tries to persuade you that you ought to join a Pentecostal church. What’s the most number of tongue speakers that should speak in church at any one meeting? It says two or three. And how many at one moment? One max, and that just doesn’t describe many churches that you could find even here in Arkansas.

 

Let’s kneel for our prayer. Our Father in Heaven, as there are so many language barriers yet in the world today, I ask that you would give to Your church that gift of tongues where it is needed, that You would find a way to communicate to those whose languages, believers of the present truth, do not speak. And for us, I ask that You would fill us with Your Spirit that we could have those signs of boldness and power in preaching, that we could understand what is true, that we could speak words that we understand and that others understand, even five that would be of value to the church. I thank You, and I ask for Your gifts in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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