SPIRITUAL GIFTS, PART 3

The Gifts of Speaking: Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues, and Prophecy

Much of what we know about these “gifts of speaking” is found in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. It seems that these particular gifts were at the center of the controversy Paul was addressing in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Scholars cite two main issues that are at the heart of Paul’s theology concerning the spiritual gifts:

  • The main purpose of all the spiritual gifts is to build up both the local church and the Body of Christ in general.

  • The gift of tongues is a gift that is easily abused by immature Christians.

Paul’s response to both of those issues is to stress the importance of love (chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians) in the exercise of all the spiritual gifts, but especially in the exercise of tongues. When all the gifts are used in a spirit of love, everyone in the community of faith is built up and encouraged and God is glorified.

The differences between the gifts of tongues and prophecy are stark. Tongues represents two kinds of speech: either languages that are understandable to people and utterances that are understood only by God. In the first instance, one may be given the supernatural ability to speak in a known language that is unknown to them. We see this happening in the book of Acts. It seems this gift is best used on the mission field. The other kind of tongues relates to what Paul referred to as “praying in the Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul writes about “praying with my mind” and “with my spirit.” Praying in the Spirit closely relates to what he wrote about in Romans 8:26 –

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.

The “praying in tongues” edifies only the one uttering those unintelligible words.

The gift of prophecy is speech that is understood by everybody. It is a message given by an individual in the language understood by those hearing it. It is not necessarily a message about future events, and is usually given to encourage a body of believers to persist in their faith or forsake sin or a message of similar admonitions. The apostle believed that prophecy is a “greater gift” than tongues because it edifies everybody in the congregation, not just the one speaking (praying) in tongues.

When it comes to these gifts Paul was very concerned that they be exercised in an orderly fashion. The evidence of God’s presence in a meeting is not necessarily the manifestation of gifts, but rather the tangible manifestation of peace, not confusion. In all our worship services, it would be wonderful if the gifts of the Spirit were manifested, but more important than that, is that God’s peace should be felt by those in attendance.

1. The gift of prophecy

A lot of Christians are under the delusion that the spiritual gift of prophecy is nothing more than the preaching of a sermon. Still others think that the gift of prophecy involves an individual making predictions about the future. Both of these viewpoints are wrong, but also correct at the same time. The gift of prophecy involves a divinely inspired message given by a believer that may or may not have a predictive element to it but it will be preaching of the highest order.

This gift is closely related to the idea of “inspiration,” but certainly not on the scale of the inspiration of Scripture. The “prophet,” or the preacher, or the person in church speaking under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, will speak forth a message from an “impulse” of sudden inspiration. The message given won’t be the result of study or research or liturgy or curriculum. It will an extemporaneous message given under the unction of the Holy Spirit.

It should be noted that the spiritual gift of prophecy is distinct from ordinary preaching. It should also be noted that there is nothing wrong with an “ordinary sermon!” In some circles a preacher is admired if he never uses notes when he preaches because that means he’s being inspired by the Holy Spirit. In response to such silly thinking we should say that the same Holy Spirit that inspires the speaker behind the pulpit on Sunday is also inspiring him as he works throughout the week in his study behind his desk and on his knees in diligent preparation.

The gift of prophecy and the office of the prophet

As we read the book of Acts and study early church history, it seems like the gift of prophecy was fairly common but “official prophets” were rare. In fact, we can name New Testament prophets on one hand: Judas, Silas, Agabus, and a couple of others. According to what Paul taught the Corinthians, every member of the church could potentially exercise the gift of prophecy but this did not mean they were a prophet in the sense of Acts 13:1 and Ephesians 4:11.

In the Old Testament, the office of the prophet was essential. The prophets back then were men whose ministry and often their entire lives were dedicated to proclaiming God’s Word to the people. Often they predicted the future (immediate future and far future), but most of the time their messages were either rebukes in the form of “turn or burn,” “the end is near,” or words of encouragement to “hold on” and “keep the faith” because there are “better days ahead.”

However, we are not living in the Old Testament. We are in a whole new dispensation which began at Pentecost. In this present dispensation, it is the privilege of all believers to be personally led and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Scope of the gift of prophecy

This gift is definitely a divinely inspired utterance. But it is not “inspired” in the same sense that Scripture is inspired. The Bible is infallible. The Bible is the absolute final word. Any word spoken by any preacher or Bible teacher is not infallible and is not the final word. Some scholars have noted that when an utterance is given by through the gift of prophecy it is considered to be inspiration of a lower class. Whenever we hear any message given by one who claims to be speaking with the anointing of the Spirit, it behooves us to measure their words against God’s Word.

2. The gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues

Of all the spiritual gifts, the gift of tongues is the most talked about and the least understood. There are some denominations that teach unless one speaks in tongues they don’t have any of the gifts, and still others teach that tongues is a gift that has ceased to exist. So what is the truth?

Laying aside denominational biases, and taking our cue from the Bible only, it seems to be an inescapable reality that in the very early years of the Church’s rapid growth, the “gift of tongues” was needed specifically to preach the Gospel in new, previously unreached areas.

Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? (Acts 2:7, 8)

Just after the Holy Spirit fell on the followers of Christ, they began to speak in other tongues, and the crowds of people in Jerusalem for Passover heard them, not babbling in unknown tongues, but in known languages.

From the standpoint of missionary work, the ability to speak in the languages of the people you are trying to minister to is invaluable.

However, by the time we get to 1 Corinthians and Paul’s teaching on the gifts, the church was well past its infancy. Pastors and evangelists were local men and women. So, was the gift of tongues or languages still necessary? We know that the gifts of God are irrevocable, so the answer must be yes. God has all the wisdom, we don’t, so it’s foolish for us to think that the gift of tongues is no longer necessary. And yet, in 1 Corinthians 14, we are explicitly told this:

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

So it seems clear that there are not one, but two uses for the gift of tongues. When necessary, a believer may be given the supernatural ability to preach the Gospel in a known language on the mission field, for example, while the other use for the gift of tongues is to pray to God in a language that is unknown to man (even to the one speaking it) but understood by God. This brings us back to Romans 8:26, which suggests that there may be times when we don’t know what or who to pray for, but since God does, He desires His Holy Spirit to pray through us, using our vocal cords.

As with all the gifts, they are to be used in an orderly fashion. Apparently in the very large Corinthian church of Paul’s day, the congregation was open to the gifts and exercising them often, but often misusing them. This was especially true of the gift of tongues, where it seemed like at any given time during their worship service, people would just break out in ecstatic tongues-speaking. Naturally, such outbursts were disconcerting to some and confusing to others. Paul’s teaching is simple:

Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. (1 Corinthians 14:4, 5)

Paul’s point here is that in a public worship service where all kinds of people are gathered, it’s preferable to prophesy—to speak—in the common language so you can be understood by all. The value of tongues lies in what it does for the one speaking in tongues, for it does absolutely nothing for those who hear it.

But, what happens if, for example, an immature or untaught believer breaks out in tongues? What do you with that person? Or, what does the pastor do if, during the course of the service, one or two people are overheard praying in tongues? Like his teaching, Paul’s advice is simple:

For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified. (1 Corinthians 14:13—17)

In other words, speaking or praying in tongues is not meant to be done out in the open for all to hear, but in private because it is between the one praying and God. However, if, by chance, it should happen that a member of the church does exercise his gift out in the open, then they bear the responsibility to “interpret” what they said in tongues so that those who heard would know what was going on. Paul’s assumption is that the one speaking in tongues in public was genuine, and was using their gift for the right reason—to praise God—at the wrong time. In such a case, their heart would be right and they would abide by the advice. However, imagine the effect such an injunction would have on somebody who spoke in tongues just to get attention, or to “show off” their gift. This was probably what was going on in Corinth, where the gifts were misused and abused. Paul, not wanting to take any chances and quench the Spirit, put the “burden of proof” on the one speaking in tongues: if you are going to do it in public, then you had better know what you saying in tongues so you can tell everybody else who heard you.

The secondary idea is that everybody deserves to be edified, just like the one who spoke in tongues. The main idea is that there needs to be order in the church service.

3. The value 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. (1 Corinthians 14:18, 19)

These verses make it sound like Paul had mixed feelings about this gift of tongues. In the following verse, we get the impression that some in the Corinthian church—those abusing the gifts—were acting like babies.

However, all the gifts of the Spirit are important and valuable, including tongues. That’s he adds this:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (verse 22)

The exercise of all the gifts, even tongues, even if they are misused, show to the unsaved that something supernatural is going on; that God really is present among the members of this congregation. The unbeliever may not understand what they are seeing or hearing, but they will know “God is among you.”

And that really is the value of all the spiritual gifts, and why all Christians ought to be exercising the gifts. The gifts build up the church and they bear witness to those outside the church that God is present. Be warned, however, that when a congregation has learned to exercise the gifts, they must do so in complete order. And understand that God will never force His gifts on anybody:

The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (1 Corinthians 14:32, 33)

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

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