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When God Is First

He Owns Our Tongues

Erwin W. Lutzer | September 28, 2003

Selected highlights from this sermon

A tongue—our words—can be a powerful agent for good or evil. God is interested in using our tongues for His service, but sadly many of us still have lips in the service of the enemy. 

No matter your language or your training, you have a part to play in taking the Gospel to the world. But first we need to rid ourselves of the bitterness that fuels our tongues, take up the Scriptures, and speak words of healing. 

One day a harsh word, harshly said

Upon an evil journey sped,
And like a sharp and cruel dart
It pierced a fond and loving heart.
It turned a friend into a foe,
And everywhere brought pain and woe.

A kind word followed it one day,
Sped swiftly on its blessed way.
It healed the wound and soothed the pain,
And friends of old were friends again.
It made the hate and anger cease,
And everywhere brought joy and peace.

And yet the harsh word left a trace
The kind word could not erase.
And though the heart it’s love regained,
It left a scar that long remained.
Friends can forgive but not forget,
Nor lose the sense of keen regret.

Oh, if we would learn to know
How swift and sure our words can go,
How we would weigh with utmost care,
Each thought before it reached the air,
And only speak the words that move,
Like white-winged messengers of love.

The power of the tongue!

You’ve heard the little jingle, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I want you to know today that that is false. Don’t believe it. There are some women who are listening to this message who would rather have a broken bone than listen to harsh, uncaring words from an angry husband, words that are intended to cut and to bruise. Words have tremendous power.

In James chapter 3, James gives some examples of the power of the tongue. He says that just like a bit in a horse’s mouth, it is a little piece of metal but it controls the whole animal, and some horses are strong and big. And they’re all controlled by one little bit of metal. He says, in fact, the tongue is like the rudder of a ship. Big ship, small rudder, but it controls the whole ship in the direction that it goes.

And then comes the last illustration, even more powerful than the other two. He said it is like a spark that begins a forest fire. A year or two ago my wife and I were in Colorado, and we saw that huge fire. Do you remember it burned hundreds of thousands of acres and many homes, all set, if I remember correctly, by an angry woman who wanted to begin a fire for some reason? And imagine what a little spark kindled.

James says: “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” Before this message is over, I am going to challenge some of you to get the hell out of your heart, because you won’t speak rightly until you do.

But now we begin to understand why there is a such a battle for the tongue. And we’ll be speaking about that battle in a moment. And in the meantime, though, we’re going to understand also why, on the day of Pentecost when God wanted to show the unity of the church, and how the church was going to spread out to all the nations of the earth, why the Holy Spirit of God took peoples tongues, and controlled those tongues. That’s the agenda for the next few moments.

Now, in order to understand this, you may be surprised, but I’m going to begin today in the book of Isaiah. We’re going to turn to Acts 2 in just a moment, but if you have found the passage in your Bible, most assuredly we are going there, but we are going to go to the book of Isaiah first of all, and then to Corinthians, and then to Acts 2, and then to your heart and mine.

In Isaiah 28:11 God is talking to Israel here about the fact that they’re not listening to His Word. And thank you, by the way, for turning to it in your Bibles. I can hear the leaves of your Bible rustling. Is that what leaves do? At least yours did. Thank you!

Verse 11: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people.” Who is “this people?” The Jews! And then it says: “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose;” but notice it says, “yet they would not hear.”

Hebrew is a very beautiful language. It’s almost musical. And the Jews believed that whenever the words of God were spoken they were supposed to be spoken in Hebrew. Hebrew was the language that God spoke, because it was to the Hebrews that He revealed Himself. And we are custodians of the Word of God, and as far as the Gentiles are concerned, they are like dogs, and they do not deserve God’s most holy revelation and His Word. God says, “The day is coming I’m going to speak to you folks in foreign languages.”

Do you know what the Hebrew actually says here? It says “the guttural sounds of languages,” because they said, “Your Gentile languages don’t sound as beautiful as ours.” God says, “I’m going to speak to you in those languages of foreigners,” because the Good News is going to go beyond the borders of Hebrew.

Now turn to 1 Corinthians 14. It’s the great passage on tongues, on the gift of tongues. And how I wish we had time to go through it verse by verse, but that will not happen. Most assuredly not today! Maybe in some other context! But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, as he is trying to reign in the gift of tongues which is being abused… He does not tell them they should not exercise the gift, but he gives various ways in which it should be controlled. There were seven different ways that the gift needed to be controlled, but notice he says that he himself speaks in tongues. And then he says in verse 20: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” And he is quoting Isaiah, chapter 28, the passage that we have just read a moment ago.

“Thus tongues,” he says in the next verse (verse 22), “are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” Now he goes on to say that if some barbarian comes in, some man who is unlearned, and he sees you speaking in tongues and he hears you, he’s going to say you are mad. But as far as the Jews are concerned, they will understand that this sign, predicted by Isaiah, is happening as proof that the Gospel is going to go out in all the different languages of the world.

With that background, Acts chapter 2. Acts 2 unfortunately has been somewhat of a battleground. People ask themselves the question, “Do I have to speak in tongues to be filled with the Holy Spirit?” What’s going on here in the text anyway? You have all of these strange phenomena taking place. It says in chapter 2, verses 1 to 3: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.”

You know what God was saying, by the way, is that the Holy Spirit was now going to be individually given to all those who believe, so every one of them had something like the tongue of a fire above them. What do you get when you get wind and fire? You get a blaze. God was doing something very, very special, and it says in verse 4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (or enabled them).”

And what were they saying? And what was this miraculous gift? Verse 5: “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” And then the languages are listed. We won’t read them all but Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Egyptians, people from Libya. It says that visitors were there from Rome, Cretans, and in verse 11 it says that all of them heard the wonders of God in their own language.

What was God saying? God was saying, “Guess what, folks. The day when you think that the only language that can be used to declare the wonderful works of God is Hebrew, the day that you folks think that you’ve got it all sewed up, that the Gospel is just for the Jewish people, I want you to know that I asked you to go to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Gospel, and I’m giving you a little indication right here of what that really will look like as the Gospel goes out in the different languages of the world.”

God is reversing Babel. You know, sin divides, and so at the Tower of Babel, you remember, they all spoke one language and they were all united. And God said, “I don’t like what you are doing,” and He gave the gift of tongues there. Suddenly people started to speak in languages that they had not been brought up in, and so this language group had to go in this direction, and this language group had to go in that direction. And God said, “I’m scattering you throughout the earth because you can’t understand each other. You’re going to have to belong to your own little tribe.” God says in the second chapter of Acts, “What I’m doing now is to show how the Spirit is going to unite, how the Spirit is going to be the great equalizer.” And from now on all the nations of the earth will be hearing God’s Holy Word.

I’d like to make four or five observations regarding the passage that we have just read. First of all, number one, they all spoke actual languages. They are listed there for us. And do you know what it says in verse 8? It says: “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” The Greek word is dialecto. What does that sound like—dialecto? In his own dialect!

Now most of these people, I am sure, understood Aramaic, which was a derivative of Hebrew. As they went throughout the land and they talked among their families, they used Aramaic, but all of them growing up in different countries obviously would be bilingual. And what they are saying is, “We are hearing the Good News of God spoken in languages of our birth, our particular dialect. And furthermore, we are hearing it from Galileans.” And they always said that the Galileans were largely uneducated, and because of the way in which they talked, they found it very difficult to form words in other languages. “These are Galileans and we are hearing them speak our own dialect.” These were actual languages.

Second, apparently they didn’t need interpreters, and there are two ways to understand this. One might be that Peter stands up. He’s not learned a word of Egyptian in his lifetime but he’s standing up and he is preaching in the language of the Egyptians. And so they all gather around him, and they say, “Come here. Peter is talking our language.” So those folks gather in one group.

And then John stands up and he’s speaking the Cretan language, which he never learned. But they are saying, “John is preaching in our language. Let us who are Cretans go over there. And so you have these different groups gathering, and maybe that’s why they didn’t need interpreters.

But there’s something else in the text that maybe happened. We can’t be sure. Maybe there was a miracle that took place in their hearing, because you’ll notice it says, if I may read it one more time, in verse 8, “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” I can just imagine that Peter is standing up and speaking Egyptian, and suddenly all the different language groups… There’s a miracle that’s taking place in the way in which they hear it. Their hearing is in their own dialect even though he is speaking in a different dialect. Maybe that’s what happened. So there were two miracles—the miracle of tongues and the miracle of hearing. But apparently they did not need interpreters when God was doing this.

There’s a third observation, and that is this. Every time now that you have the gift of tongues in the book of Acts, there are Jews who are present who are being reminded of the fact that the Gospel is now going out to the Gentiles. If we had time I’d take you to Acts, chapter 11, Exhibit A of what I’ve just explained to you. You remember Peter. He doesn’t know that… He doesn’t even want to go to the Gentile, Cornelius. God has to give him a special vision to let him know that these Gentiles are not unclean, that they are being included in the program and the plan of God, so reluctantly, and believing he has heard God correctly, he sets out and he goes and he visits Cornelius, who is a God-fearing man. He explains the Gospel to him. Cornelius believes, and the gift of tongues is received.

When Peter gets back to Jerusalem, the first thing that he gets is criticism. “Why are you going to those Gentiles? You know that the Gospel is supposed to stay within the Judaistic community.” Do you know what Peter says? He says that when it was explained to them, they also received the same gift as we, and they held their peace and they said, “Well, God, then, also has granted to the Gentiles the gift of life.”

Acts has several stories of speaking in tongues. There may have been even more stories than the book of Acts records because during this transitional period God says, “I want to give you some shock and awe to show you that the Gospel is for everyone.” When Peter gives an explanation, by the way, he’s quoting the prophet, Joel, because many people—the scoffers—are saying, “These people are drunk.” Well, that’s an interesting assessment. I’ve never known a drunk person to speak accurately a language he has never heard. I’ve heard a drunk person speak, but there’s something else that was going on there.

But he says, “This was what was spoken by the prophet Joel. In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams.’” And he talks about the Spirit coming and he says, “I will show wonders in heaven above and on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, the moon to blood before the great and glorious coming of the day of the Lord. And whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

What’s going on there? Notice that Peter does not say, “This fulfills Joel’s prophesy,” because there are things in this prophesy that did not happen. There are things in this prophecy that refer to the future coming of the Kingdom. What Peter is doing is he is saying, “This should not surprise you that these people are speaking in tongues because there are prophesies in the Old Testament that when the Messianic era comes, when the era of Messiah comes, there will be an outpoured Spirit.” And most assuredly, these other signs will take place in the millennial kingdom in preparation for what we call the millennial kingdom. But the Holy Spirit’s coming to His people, which began back there… The last days are at least two thousand years long and maybe longer. This is an indication of the kind of thing that God does. And in the future, the rest of the prophesy will come to pass.

But I want you to notice today, folks, that it is again to verify the fact that God is going to everyone. And Peter ends his quotation by saying, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Let me give you a fourth observation. This understanding of the gift of tongues helps to explain why the gift essentially died out after the time of the Apostles, and for centuries the church did not experience this gift. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God had continued the gift? I think, for example, of those who work in Wycliffe Bible Translators. I mean they are there agonizing over the text. They’ve got informants who are trying to help them to understand the language. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Cathy Krekel, who is one of the missionaries with Wycliffe, could just walk in and go to a brand new tribe and begin to speak their language? Boy, that would sure cut out a lot of hassle, wouldn’t it? But God decided not to do it that way.

Having made his point that the Gospel is for everyone, the gift very quickly died out. It is referred to in Corinth, which is a cosmopolitan city with a cosmopolitan church where you have Jews and others present. It’s not mentioned in the other epistles. Nowhere in the Bible are we ever commanded to speak with tongues. Paul only indicates how it is to be regulated, and basically it dies off the scene, except that it reappears in America in the early 1900s in Los Angeles during a revival meeting. And if I might say in great humility, but also with great respect, it surfaces in a way that is quite different from the New Testament. There you have people speaking ecstatic languages, which linguists have tried to analyze and have discovered it’s not a language at all. You have people, bless them, who are doing interpretation who do not understand the words that are being said. I have spoken to several people who interpret, and I’ve said, “Now, do you actually understand what’s being said?” They have said, “No, we just discern the message through the Spirit, and then we go with that.” Well, my dear friend, why even bother then with the gift of tongues? Just discern the message that the Spirit is giving you and speak it.

In the New Testament tongues were always a language—always a language. And when Peter preached the Gospel, as he did here in Acts 2, as far as we know, he was not speaking in a tongue. He was speaking in Aramaic, and the people would have, by and large, been able to understand him because, as I mentioned, they were bilingual, and he preached the wonderful works of God and the Gospel, and many, many people were converted. Now, I’ve not answered all of your questions about tongues, but at least I’ve given you the contours—the clear lines.

Let’s talk now about the control of our tongues and what this means for us. You read the New Testament and you discover that this battle for the tongue is almost on every page of the New Testament, because on the one hand, Satan wants to control people’s tongues, and in the New Testament we have stories of Jesus going to those who were inhabited by spirits, and the spirits spoke through people’s tongues. You say, “Does that happen today?” Yes, that happens today. I’ve heard people speak under the inspiration and the control of demonic spirits. It happens today. It happens today in all the different religions of the world. Tongues is a phenomenon that can be found in many, many pagan cultures, so on the one hand you have the devil who wants to control your tongue.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I’m sure glad that I don’t have a demon in me.” I’m glad you don’t, but now we’re getting to pay dirt. You still may be doing the devil’s work for him though. You know, there’s an interesting passage of Scripture in 1 Peter 3:11. Don’t turn to it but just listen to it. Paul is giving credentials for those who are in the church, and he’s talking about deacons. And then he says, “Likewise, their wives should behave themselves, and not be (Now the NIV translates it) malicious talkers.” I think the King James, if I remember correctly, says, “The wives should not be slanderers.” Now I understand those are good translations, but I want to introduce you today as to what the original text says. It says in Greek that the wives should not be diablos—devils. The word devil means slanderer.

Now I want you to know today that where the devil cannot go he sends an angry, critical, insecure Christian to do his work. Satan wants to use our tongues to destroy, to debilitate, to divide, to alienate, to self-justify. And it’s possible for us to do his work for him.

Have you ever met a critical person, somebody who is always critical? What really is happening within them is this. They are saying, “Spiritually I am a pygmy, and what I want to do is to make sure that everybody around me knows that they are pygmies too, and if I cut everybody else down, I will look just a little taller. I will look just a little bit more righteous in their eyes, and so here I am.”

Years ago they made ink pens—fountain pens, and the fountain pen had on the box, “When it flows too freely it is a sign that it is nearly empty.” Will you keep that in mind? Someone has said that God has given us two ears and one tongue so that we might listen twice as much as we speak. We’re just dishing out all kinds of wisdom here today.

A man by the name of A. B. Simpson, who was a pastor in New York, frequently was criticized. He was criticized for his theology. He was criticized for his methodology, but he founded an important denomination. But this is what he said on one occasion: “I would rather play with forked lightning or take into my hands live wires than to speak a reckless word against any servant of Christ, or idly repeat the slanderous darts which thousands of Christians are hurling on others to the hurt of their own souls and their own bodies.”

He was criticized in the media by another minister. The newspapers would pick up the story of the criticism of the other minister. And when that other minister fell into immorality, someone came and showed A. B. Simpson the headlines and said, “Look at your opponent. Look at what happened to him.” A. B. Simpson looked at the headline and with tears in his eyes said only this, “Oh how much he must have been tempted.”

Let’s talk for a moment about the submission of your tongue to God. James says that the tongue is set on fire of hell. The devil wants it. And Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. And how easy it is to reveal what is in our minds and hearts through our tongues, and if we are insecure and jealous and angry at our role in life how we will lash out and how we will speak. And as I mentioned, it is set on fire of hell.

Could I say this to you lovingly? I hope that this message isn’t too harsh. (chuckles) I’m always worried about being too harsh! Am I doing okay up here? Phil and Ma think it’s alright, so that passes muster with two people, maybe three. What some of you need to do is to go home and just get on your knees and stay there as long as you need to stay there to empty your hearts of the venom and the hell that makes you a critical person, a diablo. And then what all of us need to do is to pray the words of Scripture: “Oh God, set a watch before my tongue. Guard the door of my lips.” And we ought to pray, “Let no unwholesome word proceed out of our mouth but such as is good to the use of edifying.”

We’re talking about making God first, and last time we spoke about what it means to give Him our hearts and to be filled with the Spirit. Today we’re speaking about giving Him our tongues, which really means we are giving Him our hearts because that’s the fountain where it all begins. And we say today, “God, you gave me this tongue. Help me to use it for wholesome words, words that build up, words that help, words that heal the wounds rather than make the wounds. Oh God, I surrender my tongue to You.”

And then what we need to do is to learn to practice righteousness and sharing the Good News with our tongues that God gave us. Some of you, God bless you, you’ve been Christians for many years and you haven’t told anybody at work—where you work on tomorrow morning. Nobody knows that you’re a Christian.

And you say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I don’t know how to begin a conversation with anybody. I mean, how do I do it?” Well, let me give you an idea. How about going to someone tomorrow and saying, “You know, I’ve known you for so many years, and I have a question I wanted to ask you. What do you really want out of life?” And then just listen to them talk. And after they’ve talked a little bit, and you’ve asked a few other questions that are important, then what you do is you say, “Would you mind if I were to share with you something that somebody once shared with me?” Who is going to say no to that? If it was something good for you, then why isn’t it good for me? And then what you do is you say, “You know what I discovered once?” They say yes because you do need their permission. “You know what I discovered? I discovered that I can’t fix my relationship with God on my own,” and then, “Let me tell you about what Jesus did.”

And you folks who are in Evangelism Explosion are ahead of everybody on this point. And you know I told you that we were going to do what Acts chapter 2 did miraculously. We are going to do it naturally. Did you know that in Evangelism Explosion today, even as we heard, we have people who speak Spanish? We also have people who speak Mandarin. And we are branching out to all the different language groups. We’d be able to, in the city of Chicago, all of them using their mouths, their tongues to share with others the wonderful Good News of God. Isn’t that wonderful, when God has our tongues, what we can do here in the city? (applause)

I end today with this challenge. It is possible for our tongues to be either set on fire of hell (the venom, the criticism, the anger), or it’s also possible for our tongues to be set on fire by heaven. And what we want to invite ourselves to do today, as God would enable us, is to say, “Lord, you’ve given me this tongue and I’ve misused it, and I’ve hurt people.” You go to them and you ask their forgiveness, and you make it right and you say, “Oh God, from now on, as best as I can, control my heart that I might be able to control my tongue, that I might use it for the way in which you intended. It is mighty. It is powerful to destroy or to heal or to help.” But today we say, “Father, this tongue is Yours in the English language, or whatever other language you may speak.”

Would you join me as we pray?

Our Father, we know that the average person speaks enough in a lifetime to fill a large library, and we wonder what would be in our library—volume upon volume upon volume, the proportion between good, wholesome, building words, and words that tear and hurt. We ask today, Father, that You shall give us the grace to lay down what is in our hearts. We pray today, Father, that you will so cleanse us and so bring joy into our lives that we might speak words of encouragement and words of the Gospel, and that the city of Chicago might know that there is a Redeemer because the members and the friends and the attenders at Moody Church, and those who listen, are going to talk to others about Jesus, walking through doors that You are opening, giving the control of our tongues into Your hands. Would You do that?

And now before I close this prayer, are you willing to say, “Pastor Lutzer, I’ve given God my heart as best as I can. I now give Him my tongue, and by His grace I shall speak what honors the Holy Spirit who dwells within me.” Will you tell Him that?

And for those of you who have never received the gift of eternal life, the Good News that Peter preached about, it is that Jesus died for sinners, and if we transfer our trust to Him, we are accepted by God as if we were Jesus because we are accepted on His behalf. That’s the Good News of the Gospel about which we speak.

If God has been working in your heart, and you know who you are… If God has been speaking to you, you say, “Jesus, today, I accept what You did for myself.”

Do all of these things, Lord Jesus, because we are helpless. Do all this and more, and the work that You begin here may it be accomplished this afternoon, tomorrow and in the days ahead. In Jesus’ blessed name we pray, Amen.

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