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God Owns Our Tongues

What Happened at Pentecost?

The tongue has power.

Just as a small spark can light a whole forest, so “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body” (James 3:6). With so much potential for good or ill, we should not be surprised that there is a great battle for the control of our tongues.

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, He took control of the tongues of those waiting for Him. Today some people insist that this experience is for every believer; others are equally convinced that it is only one of many gifts and therefore is given only to a select group. Others adamantly declare that this gift passed away with the Apostles and thus should neither be sought nor practiced.

So, what is this gift and what was its purpose? Isaiah predicted this phenomenon in 28:11, where we read, “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to his people…” Paul, when speaking of the gift of tongues, sees Isaiah’s prophesy as fulfilled, “In the Law it is written: Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me” (1 Corinthians 14:21). He adds, “Tongues then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers…” (v. 22).

Let us proceed slowly here.

Read the context and you will discover that there is only one way to sensibly interpret this: Paul sees the gift of tongues as a sign to unbelieving Jews that the era of the Gentiles had arrived. Remember, Hebrew was the language of the Jews to whom God gave the Old Testament revelations. To the Jews, Gentile languages were uncultured and guttural. And yet here in this startling prophecy, God says that the day will come when He will speak to the Jews in the stammering languages of Gentiles!

When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were speaking Gentile languages and doing so miraculously. The Jews who overheard this should have recognized that this meant that God’s Word would now be spoken in all the languages of the known world.

Please note: the disciples spoke actual, known languages; bystanders heard their own dialect (Acts 2:8). Also, this gift was given several times in the book of Acts, in each instance the Gospel was going to a new language group. God did this as confirmation that the Gospel was breaking out of the narrow boundaries of Judaism and reaching out to the wide world of the Gentiles.

Understandably, this gift disappeared after the first century, but it reappeared in the 1900’s as something entirely different. Most who speak tongues today utter gibberish and make no pretense of speaking actual known languages. Thus whether modern tongues is a genuine work of God is a matter of debate. Below, I’ve provided some thoughts and answers for approaching this debate.

Speaking in Tongues: How Do We Interpret it Today?

Speaking in tongues has been a subject of debate and many hurt feelings among Christians. Here, Pastor Lutzer gives us some guidelines on how we should regard speaking in tongues as it happened in the Bible, and as it happens today.

Q: Many insist that some of the speaking in tongues in the New Testament was not actual languages, based on 1 Corinthians 14:2 where Paul says that those who speak in a tongue, speak to God, and no one understands him because he speaks mysteries.

A: Let me give a short answer to a question that deserves a longer answer: I doubt that Paul means to say that people are speaking some ‘heavenly language’ unrelated to any earthly language; it would be strange indeed if Paul expected Christians to put their minds in neutral and speak gibberish.

What he means is this: when people speak in tongues without an interpreter, they themselves might know what they are saying, but to others they speak mysteries. Thus, their spirit speaks, and their ‘being understood’ is unfruitful. If, for example, God gave one member of the church the ability to speak Persian, it would have to be interpreted for all the non-Persians present. If not, the speaker himself would be edified— God would give him the ability to know what he was saying—but the message would be of no value to the congregation.

Q: How then do you explain the phenomenon of tongues?

A: I’ve been in many meetings where speaking in tongues has taken place; so yes, something is happening, but I am not convinced that what I saw was done by a miraculous gift of the Spirit.

First of all, it is often something that is learned. When I was in Bible College my roommate spoke in tongues. He told me later that he had learned to do so in a prayer room when he was told that he needed to do this to show that he was filled with the Spirit. He learned to repeat various syllables that made no sense to him, but then he was told that he did not have to understand what he was saying because this was a ‘heavenly language.’ This is something that is decidedly non-miraculous. Many in the tongues movement confess to similar experiences.

Second, some of the speaking in tongues is demonic; this has been proven by linguists who have recorded actual languages with messages that were not just contrary to the Bible, but often blasphemous. We forget that the devil wants to control our tongues, and if we give up control to any spirit that is out there, demons will take advantage of our naiveté.

Third, in some cases the gift could be genuine. God might choose to intervene for His own glory and purposes. I’ve heard stories of a Chinese man who went into an English Christian Church and understood what was being said, even though he didn’t know a word of English. If the story is true, God apparently made the man hear in one language what was spoken in another. And if God wants to give someone the gift of learning a language the person has never learned, the Almighty can do as He wills.

Q: Is not speaking in tongues associated with the Filling or Baptism of the Spirit in the book of Acts?

A: In Acts 2, the Baptism and Filling of the Spirit took place accompanied with the speaking in tongues, but elsewhere in Acts and in the Epistles they are not connected. In other words, the tongues were given as a sign to the Jews, but that need not happen for the Baptism and Filling to take place. All believers are baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13); the filling is a repeated experience; neither necessitates tongues.

Q: What do you want us to take away from this brief study of tongues?

A: Simply this: we do not have to speak in tongues to be filled with the Spirit and to walk in obedience. And, remember, James says if we can control our tongues we can control our whole body.