In a large portion of the Christian church the claimed gift of speaking in tongues is held up as being almost supremely important to, and the sign of, a spirit-filled life. I’m going to examine this view today and in coming posts.
If this subject is puzzling to you, and if you are open to what God actually says about His gifts, these posts are for you, and may answer some of the questions which you can’t get answered elsewhere.
I will approach this subject not from an experiential point of view, but almost strictly from Scripture. Many prominent ministries have left the Bible behind, claiming that God is doing something new in our time. But God, while being very much in our present and in our future, does not change: what was true of His Spirit and His Word before has not been invalidated. Therefore we will use Scripture as our guide-as God himself intends us to do.
IS THE HOLY SPIRIT SPEAKING THROUGH TONGUES?
When we hear someone speaking in what they believe to be a supernatural prayer language today, are we hearing the Holy Spirit speak? Are those unidentifiable words and sounds really packed with power-and coming from the very words of God Himself?
CONTROLS AND LIMITS
In Paul’s discussion on the gift in his first letter to the Corinthians, he set very clear controls and limits on the use of the gift. Ask yourself, then: was Paul trying to control and to limit the Holy Spirit of the living God? Was Paul mistaken? Are we going to join the growing ranks of those shrinking the witness of Paul, the man chosen by God, who almost single-handedly turned the world upside down in the first century? Let’s consider some of those controls.
“Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church” (Corinthians 14:4).
If the speaker were really relaying the words of the Holy Spirit, could there be no benefit for the church, as Paul would be asserting in the above verse? Are the words of the Holy Spirit without power? This is what God has said about His word:
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our verse above that if you speak in a tongue in the church, no-one will be edified, “edified” meaning to be built up. No-one in the church will benefit at all if you speak in tongues in their hearing, and nothing will be accomplished. How, then can it be the Holy Spirit of the living God talking through you? Paul says in verse two not that you will be speaking the very words of God, but that you will be speaking to God. You will not be speaking to anyone else because they will not understand you, and they will not be edified.
The NIV of the Bible quotes Paul in verse two as saying that tongues speakers are “speaking mysteries by the Spirit”: it assigns an upper-case “S” to the word “spirit”. But the Greek word “spirit” here is the same one used in other places to speak of the human spirit. Other and older translations, such as the KJV and the NKJV translate this to refer to the spirit of the person speaking. In either case, the person is speaking to God, not the other way around, and his words have no power of their own beyond what he personally intends. Paul states this himself, when he says:
Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? (verse 6).
This point becomes even clearer as Paul’s letter continues:
But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (verse 19).
This is quite an indictment on the claim that the Holy Spirit speaks through tongues. If that were the case, Paul would be saying here that ten thousand words spoken by the Creator of the universe have no power and no meaning. He would also be saying that five of his own words are more powerful than ten thousand words from the Holy Spirit.
Paul goes on to set firm limits on the use of speaking in tongues. Can he really be limiting the expression, the power and the will of God? If you think so, then you really have a very dim view of the man who helped turn the world upside down and wrote a large portion of our New Testament. He says that:
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret (verse 27).
But Paul-what if the Holy Spirit wants to speak through more than three people? What if the Holy Spirit wants to speak through everybody at once-as happens in some modern churches?
No, Paul is not limiting the words of God, and he’s not mistaken. He’s limiting the words of man, which could have been spoken through a language not common to the church. In this case, he required an interpreter, so that the rest of the church could be edified. He goes on:
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God (verse 28).
Again, if tongues were really the Holy Spirit speaking, Paul, God’s man of the time, would never have presumed to essentially tell Him to “keep quiet”. More than that, Paul here says that the speaker should simply speak to himself, and to God. Again, it is not God speaking to the saint, it’s the saint speaking from his or her own mind and heart to God.
DID PAUL SAY THE HOLY SPIRIT PRAYS FOR US IN TONGUES?
At this point we must consider the idea that Paul said God prays for us in tongues. This idea is not taken from a passage: it’s read into it. Here it is:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
From these verses the assumption is made that the Holy Spirit prays for some of us through the gift of tongues. However, there is no mention here of tongues. The word is not used, and neither is the word “gift”. And if it were, Paul would be excluding those who don’t speak in tongues, and would be saying to them, essentially, “Your prayers and your feelings don’t matter to God. He isn’t going to help you in your weaknesses. He is not going to pray for you. He doesn’t search your heart. You’re out of luck!”
This idea is not in line with Scripture at all, or with the love of Christ, who died for all people and who loves all equally no matter what your gift may or may not be. Paul says that “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people” (verse 27). He didn’t say that the Spirit intercedes for some of God’s people.
No, Paul is saying that in those times that we all have, when we may be so distraught that we just don’t even know what to pray or how to pray, the Holy Spirit himself will pray for us. For us, that is, not through us.
Take another look at those verses. Paul says that He prays for us with “wordless groans”. Tongues were, and should be, spoken in “words” (1 Corinthians 14:19), but in the passage we’re considering, he writes of the “wordless groans” of the Holy Spirit. There is no need for utterance, because the Spirit can pray without making a sound.
If you want to say that some believers have the Holy Spirit in them and some don’t, you will need to change the gospel spoken by Paul, Jesus, and all the apostles, and you will have to delete the following passage, and others, from your Bible:
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:9-11).
TONGUES: NEVER USED AS A POWERFUL WEAPON
If you read through the book of Acts, or for that matter any of the gospels or letters, you will not find any instances of Jesus or apostles speaking in tongues to accomplish anything whatsoever. There are no healings enacted by speaking in tongues. There is no defense against persecution fought by speaking in tongues, and apart from the day of Pentecost, when Jews from all the known world and so speaking in many languages were gathered, there is no witnessing done by speaking in other tongues than those of the hearers.
In summary, the idea that the Holy Spirit utters words of power through the believer are totally un-Biblical and false. It is a vain deception.