Speaking in Tongues:
The Biblical Record
Speaking in tongues is a matter of Biblical record, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Just that fact alone may surprise many. Since this topic is mentioned in both Testaments, looking at what the Scriptures say about “tongues” is essential for us. Only then can we be sure we are where we should be as individual Christians and as a church. Any other approach can lead to misguided conduct and doctrinal error. Jesus identified what we should rely on when He said, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
The Foundation for all Church Life and Doctrine
As with all church doctrine, God’s Word, not our personal experience, must determine our belief. Mature Christians should have learned that experience is an unreliable guide to normative Christian living and doctrine. When we behave contrary to what Scripture says, we are prey to becoming cultic in both belief and conduct.
We must also accept the fact that the church can and does frequently lose its way. The church today often strays into the underbrush of personal and corporate experience as the standard for spiritual truth. This does not mean that people have not been sincere. Good intentions, however, are of little value when experience rather than Scripture forms the basis for church action and doctrine.
For individual believers, the tension arises between a great desire to be all God wants us to be and the methods chosen to arrive there. The Bible does not leave us in a fog on this issue. Jesus revealed the goal of Christian living and He provided the method for getting there. Our problems begin when we leave His way and take shortcuts. We end up much like “Brer Rabbit” in the middle of the brier patch. We believe our position is quite safe and anyone trying to reach us is going to get stickers and thorns all over themselves. No matter where you are on the topic of speaking in tongues, have the courage and honesty to come to the edge of the brier patch. Reexamine where you are in light of what the Word reveals.
Let’s open our discussion on “tongues” by looking at the general principles under which God’s gifts are given. After seeing the “big picture,” we can focus on our specific interest, tongues.
Who Gives Spiritual Gifts?
The most critical step to understanding the use of spiritual gifts is recognizing the Giver of the gifts. We notice this immediately in the early chapters of the book of Acts where we have accounts about the Apostles doing remarkable things. For example, Peter and John met a beggar at the Temple gate. He was crippled from birth. Although they had no money, the Apostles gave the man something of far greater value—they restored him to health. He got up and walked around! The biographer notes the people who saw this were “filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened” to the beggar (Acts 3:1-10). Two chapters later, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. At the Apostle Peter’s word, both husband and wife are struck dead. The text says that “great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (Acts 5:1-11). Furthermore, the next verse says, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.”
In the next chapter (Acts 6), seven individuals, including Stephen and Philip, are selected to serve as helpers to the Apostles. It appears these seven people were also given special powers (Acts 6:8; 8:6, 7). Now we come to the critical question: Who empowered—Who gifted not only the Apostles, but also the seven chosen to help the Apostles? There is only one answer. Whatever they did was a result of a gift that only God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, could give. It did not come with their title or position. It was purely a gift from God. How do we know that? That is what the Bible says!
Reading farther in Acts (chapter 7) we find that Stephen was stoned to death because of his defense of the Gospel. General persecution immediately broke out. The church was “forced” to leave the precincts of Jerusalem to do missionary work in the suburbs. Phillip went to Samaria (chapter 8), a place and people despised by the Jews because they were not pure-blooded Jews. Jesus had visited Samaria, probably more than once (John 4:4-30). While Phillip was there preaching “the good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” many became believers. When “the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them” (Acts 8:14).
One resident of Samaria identified as believing was Simon, a man who had previously “practiced sorcery.” Now, Simon the former sorcerer noticed something: When Peter and John placed their hands on people something happened. The Apostles had a certain power. He wanted that. So he bargained with the Apostles—if they gave him this power, he would give them money. As we look at the Apostles’ response to Simon, we should keep in mind what these two had said earlier to the crippled beggar at the temple. Although they could not grant the beggar’s request for money, they did have the authority to heal him. Now read carefully how Peter and John answered Simon.
“Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:20-23).
Once we get over the sharpness of Peter’s words, we need to understand the principle being explained to Simon. Whatever the Apostles accomplished with their hands was not a gift they could transfer to someone else. It was “God’s gift.” To the beggar at the temple, they could restore health. That was within the power God had given them. However, they could not distribute God’s spiritual gifts to other people—only God does that.
This story reveals the first principle about spiritual gifts we need to consider: Spiritual gifts are God’s gifts alone—no one else can dispense them. Let’s restate that in another way: Spiritual gifts do not belong to a church, to a denomination, to a bishop, to a pastor or other church leader. They are God’s alone. As the Apostle Paul further explained, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good . . . all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11).
Secondly: Spiritual gifts are given for the good of the church. They are not something provided to add special status to key individuals in the church. Paul explained this in I Corinthians 12:7 (see above). He expressed the same principle in other places. In Ephesians, he declared God’s gifts are “so that the body of Christ (the church) may be built up” (4:7-13). Of his own gift of apostleship, Paul wrote, “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father . . .” (Galatians 1:1). The spiritual gifts given to Paul and everyone else in the church were given for the benefit of the church by the Lord of the Church. We can see how just a Biblical understanding of God’s purpose for spiritual gifts can avoid many problems.
Recapping this section, we understand that:
1. Spiritual gifts are God’s gifts to give.
2. Spiritual gifts are given to benefit others.
The Use of “Tongues” in the Old Testament
Next, we want to look into the Old Testament to see what it says about tongues. If there is a connection between the Scriptures, Old and New, looking at them together is important. The key discussion on the subject of tongues is in Isaiah. However, for our benefit let’s preview the topic in the writings of two other major prophets, Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
Early in his writing, Jeremiah the Prophet pointed out how God viewed His communication (words) by His prophets, both spoken and written. He began chapter 5 like this: “ ‘Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city. Although they say, “As surely as the Lord lives, still they are swearing falsely.” O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?’ ” (Jeremiah 5:1-3).
Picking up the charge against the people of the house of Israel (Judah), the prophet continued: “They have lied about the Lord; they said, ‘He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.’
“Therefore this is what the Lord God Almighty says: ‘Because the people have spoken these words, I will make my words in your mouth (Jeremiah’s mouth) a fire and these people the wood it consumes.’
“ ‘O house of Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am bringing a distant nation against you—an ancient and enduring nation, a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand’ ” (Jeremiah 5:12-15). Through Jeremiah, God is saying to Judah, “Because you will not listen to My words, clearly and directly spoken in your own language by My prophet, I am sending you a message by people of another tongue, another language. That will get your attention.”
When they were taken captive by Babylon, people would ask, “ ‘Why has the Lord our God done all this to us?’ you will tell them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own.’ ” Jeremiah 5:19 (see Deuteronomy 28:49-52). Because they were unwilling to listen to the God in their own language, He sent a people with a language they did not know. This nation would bring them to the point where they would listen to God.
God’s word to the Prophet Ezekiel parallels what we have just read from Jeremiah. To set the scene properly, we begin with the ending words of chapter two: “Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.
“And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat . . . So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
“He then said to me; ‘Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel—not to many people of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me . . .’ ” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:8).
Here, Israel is pictured as a nation that would not listen to God in its own language. “Others,” God said, “would have listened to My message even if delivered in a foreign tongue.” This theme, depicting Israel and Judah as unwilling to accept God’s words, was conveyed by other prophets as well.
Although Ezekiel and Jeremiah wrote after Isaiah, God’s message about “foreign tongues” was the same. It is important to recognize Isaiah’s writing as background to our topic of “tongues”. As we pick up the dialogue, the people of Israel were complaining about God’s message being delivered by Isaiah: “ ‘Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast?’
“ ‘For it is:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.’ ”
The Lord responds, “ ‘Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest;” and, “This is the place of repose—but they would not listen” ’ ” (Isaiah 28:9-12). Repeatedly, the Lord told Israel that since they would not listen to Him in their own language, He was going to use “strange tongues” to get through to them.
There was another compelling reason why the Isaiah text is so important to our understanding of “tongues.” It is the Apostle Paul’s inspired commentary about God’s use of “foreign lips and strange tongues” to address the people of Israel. In effect, Paul declared the principle in the New Testament is the same as what Isaiah stated in the Old Testament.
Connecting the Old and New Testaments
The Apostle Paul was in the middle of his discourse to the Corinthian church on spiritual gifts. He interrupted that teaching to present his definitive statement on the “better way” of Christian conduct—love. He wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:1, 2).
When he concluded his statement on love, he returned again to his previous topic. He placed the spotlight of God’s Word on the subject of tongues. “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
“Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written (quoting the passage from Isaiah):
‘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,’ says the Lord.
“Tongues, then are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers; prophecy (preaching), however, is for believers, not for unbelievers” (I Corinthians 14:18-22). Under the Spirit’s guidance, the Apostle Paul brought the Old Testament passage from Isaiah right into the middle of a New Testament problem.
The Use of “Tongues” in the New Testament
Regarding “speaking in tongues,” the Old Testament texts explained its purpose and the Apostle Paul made it explicit: God used tongues as a sign to unbelievers, not believers. Israel would not receive God’s message through His Hebrew speaking prophets. Accordingly, He informed them repeatedly that they would be hearing “foreign lips and strange tongues” because of their unbelief. The specific and unmistakable interpretation by Paul of those Old Testament texts was that tongues are indeed sent as a sign—to unbelievers. That fact formed the justification for Paul’s statement that “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words . . . than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Following this convincing statement was a strong admonition on the priority of preaching in the church.
Paul’s inspired writing to the Church is that when we crave after the use of tongues we are thinking like children—we haven’t grown up (I Corinthians 14:20). Although Israel complained they were being addressed like children and they resented it, the Lord said that since they still weren’t getting it, they would be spoken to in “foreign tongues,” as unbelievers (Isaiah 28:9-12). Let’s summarize this section: Both Old and New Testaments affirm that tongues are a sign to unbelievers—not to believers.
The Giving of the Holy Spirit
Under this Biblical rule or principle, we want to examine “speaking in other tongues” reported in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost. The scene in Jerusalem on that day was repeated only three other times. These four occasions reinforce the principle identified by Paul and exemplified by the Old Testament prophets: Tongues are a “sign for unbelievers, not for believers.”
In each case that people hear other tongues at the giving of the Holy Spirit, God, once and for all, spoke to an identifiable and different body of “unbelievers.” No other occasions are recorded or alluded to.
At Jerusalem: To the Jews
As we take them one at a time, we begin with the Jerusalem experience. There was a small group of people we would call “believers.” In the first chapter of Acts, these people were identified: “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) . . .” Acts 1:15.
When the day of Pentecost came, Luke wrote “they were altogether in one place.” The general assumption today is that most or all 120 of the Jerusalem believers were present. Of this group, it says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).
What did the 120 “believers” think was happening? The Apostle Peter explained. He said this event was something prophesied in the Old Testament by Joel (Acts 2:16-21). In addition, and more important to the 120 people and the audience, this was what Jesus Christ promised He was going to do after He returned to the Father. In Jesus’ words, “I will send (the Counselor) to you” (John 15:26, 27; 16:5-15). Peter’s statement regarding Jesus and his explanation about the meaning of the “tongues” covered the next fourteen verses. He ended it with the declaration, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” See Acts 2: 22-36.
Surrounding the group of 120 “believers” was a much larger group of unbelieving Jews. They did not believe the words of Joel. They had confirmed their contempt for Jesus’ words by having Him crucified. Thus, the coming of the Holy Spirit with the “sign of tongues” ratified Jesus as the risen Lord and Christ.
The “sign of tongues” as the Apostle Paul later explained, was also a sign to the unbelieving, but “God fearing” crowd of Jews “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). Their response to what they had just seen was recorded for us, “ ‘. . . we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine’ ” (Acts 2:11-13).
Nevertheless, the sign of tongues got through to the unbelievers. After Peter and the Eleven addressed the crowd (2:14), we read that of this diverse group from every nation, about 3,000 were added to the number of believers (Acts 2:38-41).
So in this first instance, God spoke with “foreign tongues” as a sign to the crowd of unbelieving Jewish people who surrounded the 120 as they received the Holy Spirit. It was also a sign to all Israel regarding the Lordship of Jesus. This, the Apostle Peter affirmed. It also removed any doubt in the minds of those present regarding Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit to His disciples (John 16:5-15). The Divine Counselor was among them.
At Caesarea—To the Gentiles
The second instance where “foreign tongues” were used as a sign was in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. What occurred involved the Apostle Peter and Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed in Caesarea. Cornelius had a reputation as a devout, God fearing man, generous to those in need and one who prayed regularly (Acts 10:1, 2). In a vision from God, he was instructed to send men to Joppa (about 25 miles south) and seek out the Apostle Peter. They were to ask him to come to Caesarea.
We must remember that we are now eight chapters into New Testament church history after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish believers. The Holy Spirit was sent to give them power to be Jesus’ witnesses. Thus far, they apparently had not ventured into the Gentile world, contrary to Jesus’ command (Matthew 28:18-20). How could God, without question, show the Apostles that Gentiles were to be a part of the Church of the Firstborn? How could He insure that Jewish believers would “believe” His plan to include Gentiles in His Church? Do you think Peter, a devout Jew, was about to go visiting Roman centurions on his own?
Peter’s own explanation displayed his inclination: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
It took an extraordinary and extended vision from God to this Apostle before he would even consider going into the house of a Gentile (Acts 10:9-20). After that vision, God directed Peter to “. . . get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (the men sent by Cornelius). The next morning, Peter made his journey into Caesarea to the home of the Roman centurion (Acts 10:21-23).
After some introductory remarks to Cornelius and his household, Peter began to preach about Christ—His life, death and resurrection. Then he exclaimed that not only were the disciples chosen to be witnesses to these things, but Jesus “. . . commanded us to preach to the people.” Even “the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:41-43).
After these amazing events and Peter’s vision and statements, do you think he was convinced that Gentiles were to share in the blessings of the Church and the presence of the Holy Spirit? Did he “believe” that God’s grace was for everyone, even Gentiles? How about the rest of the Jerusalem church?
Well, right in the middle of his sermon, God broke in, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
“Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have’” (Acts 10:44-48). Again, we see God using “foreign tongues” to convince “unbelievers.” Here, however, the unbelievers were Jewish Christians who did not believe the Gospel was open to all, including Gentiles.
God, as He did in Acts 2, had to employ speaking in “foreign tongues” to convince Jewish Christians of the nature and composition of the Church. Still, Peter was not yet out of the woods. He returned to Jerusalem where an angry church was waiting for him with some tough questions. “The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” One would imagine this would bring great joy to the Jerusalem church.
But, read the reaction: “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’ ” (Acts 11:1-3). Not exactly a warm homecoming! Peter, after a lengthy recounting of God’s direct intervention in his life, capped off his defense before the church by revealing what turned his own heart around.
“ ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?’ ” (Acts 11:15-17).
It was only after Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in tongues that he was convinced. He realized at that moment that his former unbelieving attitude was in reality “opposing God.” Gentiles are to be included as equal members in the Church. The “unbelieving” Jewish Christians came to believe the truth about the Church of the Firstborn (See Acts 15:8-11). Yet, it took this special, miraculous measure by God to bring this change of heart in Peter and the Jerusalem church leaders.
At Ephesus—To the Religious
The third instance of speaking in tongues in relation to the coming of the Holy Spirit involved the Apostle Paul. Peter, the Apostle/Preacher, and Paul, the Apostle/ Writer, shared in being God’s human instruments to introduce the Church to the work of the Holy Spirit.
This third segment of the magnificent heralding of God the Holy Spirit into the life of the Church is perhaps the most important for us today. It is recorded in an unusual chapter that presents three different groups of people to us: (1) Some who knew nothing about Jesus; (2) Some who didn’t know Jesus but were using His name anyway; and (3) Some who started a riot in the city because they didn’t know Jesus. All in one chapter. Let’s see how it unfolded.
Paul was traveling overland in what we now call Turkey, finally arriving at the seaport city of Ephesus. When he got there, the text says abruptly, “There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ ” From the narrative that follows, it appears that Paul at first assumed these were disciples in the sense of being followers of Jesus Christ. However, they were not. To Paul’s question about the Holy Spirit, they answered: “ ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ ” So Paul asked: “ ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
“ ‘John’s baptism,’ they replied” (Acts 19:2, 3). Right away Paul began to teach these twelve men what the message of John the Baptist was all about. He explained the implications, in the fullest sense, of being a follower of John. Paul was saying: “John’s real mission was to tell people to believe in the One coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:4). Although these men were very devout and sincere, Paul discovered they had not gone very far in their spiritual life.
While acknowledging John’s baptism as the level of their commitment, they were unaware of John’s most important proclamation: Jesus is the Lamb of God Who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. As we read in the gospels, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! . . .’
“Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God’ ” (John 1:29-34).
Although religious, at this point these twelve men (probably devout Jews) were not believers in Jesus in any sense of the word. The importance of this passage for us today is to help us correctly understand the relation between the Holy Spirit and Jesus to the believer.
Prior to their meeting with Paul, these twelve men could not participate in New Testament filling with the Holy Spirit. Why? They did not believe in Jesus. We understand, of course, they had not even heard of Jesus, and that is the heart of the matter. The Holy Spirit does not infill people who are not committed to Jesus. The Holy Spirit does not empower people who have not first taken Jesus into their lives as their Lord. The Holy Spirit is not competing with Jesus nor does He act independently from Jesus (John 16:12-15). For that very reason, Paul’s first responsibility to these followers of John the Baptist was to introduce them to Jesus. Paul certainly understood the relationship between believing in Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This passage permanently settled that question for the Church of the Firstborn: The Holy Spirit is only given to those who come into vital relationship with the Son of God.
Once he baptized them “into the name of the Lord Jesus . . . ,” Paul then “placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:5-7). That “rapid-fire” sequence is as the passage reads. The Holy Spirit does not function outside the boundary of the Trinity. The Trinity is One in purpose as well as essence.
The Spirit came as Jesus announced: As the gift of the Father to empower people to witness under the Lordship of Jesus (Acts 1:4-8). God again used “speaking in tongues” as a sign to unbelievers. The Holy Spirit does not indwell apart from a person’s relationship to Jesus as Lord. Scripture consistently declares that doctrine (Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 6:18-20; I John 4:13, 14). To claim the power and the gifts of the Spirit and live in disagreement with the Eternal Word is heresy.
In Samaria—To the Samaritans
The fourth and final occasion where speaking in tongues is used as a sign to unbelievers closely paralleled the second instance we looked at involving the Roman centurion, Cornelius. You recall that the Jewish Christians could not believe that God would include Gentiles in the Church of the Firstborn. As a nation, the Jews had similar feelings about the Samaritan people. Perhaps they might have been even lower on their scale because they were only part Jewish.
We already quoted this passage to identify spiritual gifts as God’s gifts to the church. While speaking in tongues is not explicitly mentioned regarding the Samaritan’s receiving the Holy Spirit, the text certainly allows for it: “Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me this ability . . .’ ” (Acts 8:17, 18). There seemed to have been a visible manifestation of the coming of the Spirit to the Samaritans that Simon saw. Thus, the offer of money to Peter and John.
Given the hatred between the Samaritans and Jews, it was not out of character for God to again provide a special sign at the giving of His Spirit. You may recall that Jesus was well aware of the longstanding animosity between the Jews and Samaritans (John 4:7-9). That hostility duplicated the need for a special sign as with the Gentiles. However, that they spoke in tongues is not specifically mentioned. It appears they did, but that should not be an issue for debate. So, if the reader wants to exclude this instance from this series, that’s all right, too.
We want to move on to the “gift” of speaking in tongues. Before we do, let’s take a look at an Old Testament parallel of where God filled some of the elders of Israel with His Spirit.
Old Testament Parallel to the New Testament
Moses was trying to lead some two and a half million Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land. Although he was ably assisted by Joshua, his young associate, and with the council of his brother Aaron, his task was a burden that was impossible. It got so bad that Moses complained to God: “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now–if I have found favor in your eyes–and do not let me face my own ruin” (Numbers 11:14, 15). Those were strong words from God’s chosen servant. He needed help.
God intervenes for Moses in a special way. He instructed Moses to “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone” (Numbers 11:16, 17).
Can you immediately see the connection to what Jesus told His disciples He would do in giving them His Spirit? Follow what happens next. “So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the Tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit what was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again” (Numbers 11:24, 25).
Of interest to us is that while Moses had called seventy elders, only sixty eight showed up. What took place with the other two? We read further: “However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp” (Numbers 11:26).
Notice that the sign of receiving the Spirit in this case was a special gift of utterance, prophesy. That only happened to these men once, and we have no other record of that occurring in the Old Testament with one exception: King Saul in I Samuel 10:6. That was the occasion of Saul’s being anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. Much like the New Testament speaking in tongues with the giving of the Holy Spirit–it was the inauguration alone which received special Divine recognition.
As we conclude this section, let’s summarize what we have discovered We have identified two Biblical rules or principles that guide our understanding of speaking in tongues. We have also examined the inauguration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church for ministry. Here is what we have talked about regarding “tongues”: God used “tongues” as a sign to unbelievers, not believers.
A. At Pentecost, foreign tongues was a sign to the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem who observed the 120 disciples.
B. At Caesarea, foreign tongues was a sign to the unbelieving Christians who did not believe Gentiles should be part of the Church.
C. At Ephesus, foreign tongues was a sign to the group of twelve men who had not entered into a vital relationship with Jesus as Lord.
D.In Samaria, foreign tongues appear to have been used as a sign that Samaritans were to be included in the Church.
Speaking in tongues as a sign of the indwelling of the Spirit is never again mentioned in any New Testament writing. On these four occasions, the use of tongues fall into the prophetic mold involving the Jewish people. As far as we know, this “sign” of the Spirit is not used again (review section on Isaiah 28:9-12 and I Corinthians 14:18-22). In short, the experience of speaking in tongues for receiving the Holy Spirit is not normative for the church. From the Scriptures it is conclusive that the events at the inauguration of the coming of the Holy Spirit were just for that purpose—the inauguration. Speaking in tongues is not the sign of the Spirit’s presence in the believer’s life.
What, then, about “speaking in tongues” as one of the spiritual gifts? What does the Bible say about that?