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The Sunday Sermon – 1 Corinthians 14:1-4


Speaking in Tongues!

1st Corinthians 14:1-4

Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. 2For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. 3But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. 4He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

This passage begins with a statement that clearly links it with the previous chapter and simultaneously introduces the subject matter of the verses to come.  Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

The Amplified Bible renders the first part of this verse as, “Eagerly purse and seek to acquire this love – make it your aim, your great quest…”  So love is to be our priority, our goal, and our pursuit.  In agape love we have the very essence of Christianity!  We are to pursue that love, and we are to desire the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  But at Corinth, one particular gift was causing enormous problems.  What was this gift that was being so much abused at Corinth, and causing so many problems in the church?  It was the ‘gift of tongues!’  And it is to that particular gift that we must now turn our attention in some detail, noticing the amount of attention that Paul gives to it in these verses.

You may ask why!  In the church where I am a minister, tongue-speaking, in the manner in which Charismatics understand it, is not practiced, nor is it part of our doctrinal position.  Some may argue that it is pointless to spend time on such a subject, just preaching to the converted!  But we must take warning from what Paul has written!  The modern church is beset with Charismatics, even in traditionally non-Pentecostal denominations, who are pushing their agenda with alarming force.  I recently spoke to a gentleman who is an elder in a reformed assembly, and who was concerned that a young man of his acquaintance had been unduly influenced by Charismatics.  The young man had a great desire to serve the Lord in some form of youth ministry and he approached a well known international youth organisation to find such an opportunity.  He was invited to attend a prayer meeting, and it was after this prayer meeting that he contacted the Elder of his church in some distress.  At the prayer meeting, he had been the only member of the team who did not ‘speak in tongues.’  The other participants were surprised that, in this day and age, there were Christians who still did not believe in tongue-speaking, and they were beginning to pressurises him to conform to their charismatic practices, or to depart from this particular evangelistic team.  My friend was extremely perplexed as to the advice that should be offered to the young man!

It is often the case, in my experience, that young people in these circumstances do the accepted thing, go along with the flow and become embroiled in charismaticism, just to remove the peer-pressure that results from such situations.  They then return to their own church, wanting to bring with them these charismatic practices.  They want to speak in tongues, and to indulge in ‘happy-clappy’ style worship, and to have rock bands and drama and all the other distractions that Charismatic worship fosters.  A division occurs in the local church, and that is exactly what Paul is warning against throughout 1st Corinthians.  The passage is relevant to non-Charismatic church as a warning and an admonition.  We must understand these passages, if we are to warn other of the dangers that lurk in the Charismatic wing of the church today.

Some Pentecostals would argue that the volume of Paul’s writing upon this subject would indicate its importance for the church, both then and today!  In that they are quite mistaken and have completely misunderstood Paul’s purpose in writing the passage.  The fact that Paul spends so much time on this matter, indicates the enormity of the problems which it caused at Corinth, and how difficult those problems are is to resolve.  The whole thrust of Paul’s argument in these verses is that worship must be edifying, and he uses speaking in tongues as an example of unedifying worship!  Let us see the real meaning of ‘Speaking in Tongues.’

The Importance of Tongues in Corinth

In Corinth, ‘speaking in tongues’ was THE major issue!  It would seem that the Corinthians saw in tongues, a most desirable gift indeed!  It was spectacular!  It was a gift that would draw great attention to the speaker, and that is exactly what the proud, puffed-up Corinthian believers wanted.  You can imagine the scene if you entered that meeting.  There would be people all over the place, praying and preaching out loud in foreign languages and dialects, all at the same time, all trying to draw attention to themselves, trying to outdo each other in volume and verbosity.  Imagine the chaos!  Imagine the effect on a casual visitor!

The Prominence of Tongues in Charismatic Circles!

In modern Pentecostalism, tongues is the major issue, despite what their leaders may argue to the contrary.  A pastor once told me that in his church, “Speaking in tongues is a plank in our platform.  It is not our platform!”  But if that is the true position of Pentecostals and Charismatics, that teaching has certainly not filtered down to the people in the pews of their churches!  Consider:-

  • The status of ‘tongues’ in Modern Pentecostalism!  Now I talk about the ‘status’ of tongues in Pentecostalism, I am not referring to official Pentecostal doctrine in every such denomination or church, but rather what is a common and normally held belief in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles.  Many Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that:-
  1.          i.      Tongues determines a Christian’s spiritualityAbout a year after I became the pastor of a certain Pentecostal Church, one of the deacons, in the meeting of the Church Session, asked me if I was baptised with the Holy Spirit.  I said I was.  (You have already been made aware of my views on that subject when we discussed 1st Corinthians 12:13)  He then asked me, “Are you sure?  Did you speak in tongues?”    The Assemblies of God, probably the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world has a highly elevated view of tongue-speaking, and believes that if a Christian has not spoken in tongues, he cannot be filled with, or baptised in, the Holy Ghost!  Here is an extract from the Assemblies of God Web Site’s Statement of Belief,  “We Believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit, the initial evidence of which is the speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance.”  If you believe that, you must believe that Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones and all the great Christian preachers and teachers throughout the ages, all the great soul-winners, missionaries and evangelists were not filled with the Holy Ghost!  I recall making this point to a Pentecostal Christian, and his response was, “Just think what these great men would have been, and what they could have achieved for God if only they had the experience of God that is evidenced by speaking with other tongues!”  I’ve got to say I find that argument truly incredulous!  In Britain today, there is an abundance of Charismatic phenomena in the church.  Never have so many Christian claimed the gift of ‘tongues.’  But there is not a Spurgeon in the church today!  Nor is there a Lloyd Jones!  Nor is there the great revival that logically this abundance of charismata should precipitate if this argument was correct.
  2.        ii.      Tongues determines the extent of Christian fellowshipAt a committee meeting an elder in an Elim Church told me that he would have no problem in having fellowship with a number of ecumenical clergy in his area.  I protested that the men (and women) he was fellowshipping with were known for their liberal attitudes to the Scriptures, to sin and that they indulged in multi-faith activities.  His reply to me was that. “These are all spirit filled men.  They exercise the gifts of the spirit, just like we do!”  In fact what he meant was that they all indulged in tongue-speaking!
  3.       iii.      Tongues covers a multitude of sins!  If a man or woman can speak in tongues, they can almost live whatever kind of life they like!  I have seen people who were excused all sorts of moral deficiencies and excesses, just because they could speak in tongues!  One man drank heavily.  Another lived in an unruly fashion while another was too closely associated with rogue elements in society, while yet others were behaving with sexual impropriety.  All the time they were ‘exercising their gift’ and speaking in tongues in the services of the churches.  When discipline was attempted, the people in the churches almost refused to believe that they were in need of such measures, for these were spiritual men, for they were exercising the gift of tongues!  How like Corinth many of these churches are!
  • The source of tongues in Modern Pentecostalism!  Now where do these ‘tongues’ come from?  There are some who say that they are from the devil himself!  I do not believe that, although I do believe that the devil can use these aberrations of worship to tempt God’s people to worship God wrongly.  Do remember that God punished those who offered Him worship that was unacceptable to Him!Numbers 26:61 And Nadab and Abihu died, when they offered strange fire before the Lord.  But I certainly do not believe that these charismatic tongues are from the Lord either!  I have watched closely the behaviour of these ‘tongue-speakers,’ as they whip themselves up into an emotional frenzy, singing chorus after chorus.  As they dance and shout and moan and rock in the seats…  I believe that speaking in tongues, whether done by sincere Pentecostals, or by Mormons, or by Buddhists, or even by devil worshippers, are a product of heightened human emotions.  They are of the flesh!  It is fleshly, carnal worship that emulates the worship of the pagan world.  Let me remind you of the lessons we learned in 1 Cor. 12:2-3 Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.

So the great debate about tongues rages around the issue of what the Bible really means when it talks about ‘tongues.’ Are ‘tongues’ really ‘ecstatic unknown, heavenly languages’ that burst forth unpredictably from the speaker, known only unto God, or is there a much simpler understanding of the term?

Five Indicative Proofs!

Throughout these studies I have argued that in the Bible, the word tongues is synonymous with the word languages, that is, that ‘tongues’ were nothing other than known earthly languages, being spoken as the Lord directed the speaker.  One Pentecostal preacher, speaking in a meeting I attended owned up to this by stating that “Biblical tongues were more than just gibberish!”

I want to give you five proofs that Biblical ‘tongues’ were actual identifiable languages:-

  • The proof of Acts chapter 2.  In Acts 2, every man heard the Gospel in HIS OWN TONGUE!  And these tongues were identifiable languages!  Acts 2:4  And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  Acts 2:6-11 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
  • The proof of Textual Consistency,  The Greek word for tongues which people understood as languages n Acts 2 in the word glossw.  It is the same word used throughout the New Testament when tongues are being discussed.  It is a basic rule of hermeneutics that the same Greek word should carry consistency in meaning throughout the Scriptures.  Hodge, writing in his commentary on 1st Corinthians, (and commenting on chapter 12:10) and defending the view that ‘tongues’ means known languages rather than ecstatic utterances, states, “The passage referred to must be understood in consistency with the other passages relating to the same subject.  Though there are difficulties attending any view of the gift in question, arising from our ignorance, those connected with the common interpretation are considerably less than those which beset any of the modern conjectures.”[i]
  • The proof of Lingual Translation.  Paul appeals for these tongues to be interpreted.  Literally, the word just means ‘translated.’  If they are capable of translation, they must surely be recognisable languages.
  • The proof of ‘No Confusion.’  The very purpose of this passage is to remove the scenes of confusion from the Corinthian meetings.  Paul will later say, in 1 Cor. 14:33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.   But Paul in this passage introduces passages that are explicitly about foreign languages.  (Chapter 14:10-11, 21-22).  If speaking in tongues was anything other than human languages, would not this (consequent) interpolation of Paul’s simply bring about the confusion against which Paul is himself teaching?
  • The proof of Biblical mystery!  In verse 2, Paul says  1 Cor. 14:2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. I have spoken to Pentecostal Christians on this matter, over the years, and have often asked the question, “When you speak in tongues, do you know, within yourself, the exact meaning of the words you are saying?”  Invariably the answer has been no, and they have frequently pointed to this verse!  They say, “I don’t know what I am saying, for it is a mystery, known only to God!”  But what does the Bible mean when it speaks of ‘a mystery?’  The common understanding of the word is something that is hidden from our understanding.  A dictionary states, “A secret, an obscure fact, something that is unexplained, something beyond human understanding.”  The Roman Catholic Church explains its doctrine of transubstantiation in this manner.  How can the bread and wine be the actual body and blood of the Lord Jesus, when it is obvious to the eye that it is still bread and wine?  “Oh,” they will say, “That is a great mystery!”   BUT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, A MYSTERY IS SOMETHING THAT IS REVEALED, not something that is hidden!  Let me point you to some Scriptures that will clarify this for us,
  1.               i.      Romans 16:25-27 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith: To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen.
  2.             ii.      Ephes. 3:2-6 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to youward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: 
  3.           iii.      Col. 1:25-27 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 

 So, the mystery has been revealed!  Someone who is speaking in a tongue, in the Biblical sense, will UNDERSTAND WHAT HE IS SAYING!  Could it be that the New Testament speaker in a tongue KNEW what he was saying?  This would seem to be implied in verse 4, where Paul says  He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.   Now let us be quite emphatic about this.  If a person who was speaking in tongues, and did not understand what he was saying, how could he edify, (teach and improve) himself?  If this is the case, then the miracle of the Holy Spirit’s endowment on the Day of Pentecost was truly a marvelous and astonishing achievement of the power and omnipotence of God!  Just think, at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, there were people who were visiting from other parts of the world.  Romans for example, who would have spoken Latin as their native language.  Suddenly they heard unlearned men, men who had no education in foreign languages, begin to proclaim the good news about Jesus in Latin, as well as other languages!  That in itself would be a tremendous miracle!  But what if the speaker himself, actually understood what he was saying, and was not only preaching to others, but edifying himself also for as spoke in Latin, or whatever language, he suddenly began to understand, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a language which he was speaking, but had never actually learned!  The enormity of that miraculous intervention by God can hardly be stated!  It certainly is a much greater demonstration of the power and ability of God than the miserable glossolalia of the Charismatics!

Hodge, commenting on this passage writes, “The speaker with tongues did not edify the church, because he was not understood; he did edify himself, BECAUSE HE UNDERSTOOD HIMSELF.  This verse therefore, proves that the understanding was not in abeyance, and that the speaker was not in an ecstatic state”[ii]

(Now, we must not forget verse 14, 1 Cor. 14:14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful, for it would seem to contradict verse 4, but I will deal with its meaning in the next chapter)

It is for these five reasons that we deduce that when Paul and the early church were speaking in tongues, miraculously, by the power of the Holy Spirit, what they were doing was not speaking in some form of mysterious heavenly language, known only to the angels and to the Lord Himself, but rather in actual, recognizable languages!  It was a gift greatly needed in Apostolic days, but in these times, when we have the Scriptures to teach us, when the apostles are no longer with us, this great gift is no longer to be expected in the church.

[i]               Hodge, Charles,                    1st Corinthians, Geneva Commentary,             Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1959 Pg 252

[ii]               Hodge, Charles,                    1st Corinthians, Geneva Commentary,             Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1959 Pg 281

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