Tongues and Prophecy for today

The purpose of this blog post is to lay down some biblical reflections on the topics of tongues and prophecy as spiritual gifts that have been given for the building up of the church. For full disclosure, I grew up in a context where I was taught that if you did not pray in tongues then you did not have the Holy Spirit as an active presence in your life. I was also exposed to leaders and lay people in a church who would regularly tell others (including myself) that God had given them a ‘word’ to tell them. The response was that whatever was said would tend to be taken as authoritative without any discernment. Both of these experiences have shown me that many of the sisters and brothers who believed these things were sincerely and genuinely seeking to be faithful to God. The problem is that I think they were/are sincerely and genuinely mistaken.

Some deny that tongues and prophecy continue to this day – I am not one of them. However, I do have many thoughts derived from my reading of the Bible that relate to these topics. What follows is a brief introduction to them. It is unfortunate that the focus of many is on these gifts (either in pursuing them or in denying their continued presence) when the big picture is so much richer.1 It is to that big picture that I now turn.

The Big Picture

When Jesus ascended into heaven He told His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to give His disciples power to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:1-8). When the Spirit does come in chapter 2, it empowers the disciples to proclaim Christ and explain the Gospel. It gives them boldness. It reminded them of Jesus’ person and work so that they could explain it, which is what Jesus said the Spirit would do back in John 16:26-27. But it also gifted Christians with spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8).

There is something to be said about the fact that signs accompanied the disciples in the book of Acts, just as Jesus’ public ministry had signs and wonders as well. This is nothing new – with Moses in the Exodus, and Elijah and Elisha during the time of the kings and prophets, crucial moments in God’s salvation history are accompanied by a relatively greater occurrence of miracles. But it isn’t clear that these signs and wonders are the same thing as spiritual gifts (they may be related, but I don’t think they are the same concept and performing the same function that the New Testament speaks of). Signs and wonders were marks of those who were sent by God (for Moses, for Elijah/Elisha, for Jesus, and for the early disciples) but what were the purpose of spiritual gifts?

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 we see the Apostle Paul’s most extended discussion of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. Here he clearly lays out how every member of the body of Christ has a manifestation of the Holy Spirit given for the common good (i.e. encouragement and benefit) of every other member of the church. Not every member has the same manifestation, but all members are valuable to the working of the church. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:1 and 14:39 that we should desire the gifts of the Spirit, and we should especially desire prophecy. But above gifts, we should desire and pursue love above all else (1 Corinthians 12:31, 14:1).

Faith, hope, and love will last into eternity, in its existence and in its fruits (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Spiritual gifts are necessary for our present time while we wait for Christ’s return but they are not ultimate. These gifts are the way in which God has apportioned parts of the body of Christ to build each other. When Jesus returns, the gifts will no longer be necessary.

Tongues

Here is what some of the biblical evidence tells us about the gift of tongues:

  • The gift of tongues is the gift of other languages that is given to Christians in order to praise and worship God (1 Corinthians 14:13-17) and can also edify the speaker (1 Corinthians 14:4).
  • It is not used for speaking to other people but to God alone (1 Corinthians 14:2) and it is a sign for unbelievers – not for believers (1 Corinthians 14:22). Specifically, it is a sign that was prophesied to the Jews (1 Corinthians 14:21) that God would bring salvation beyond the nation of Israel. In other words, speaking in tongues was a sign to the Jews that the one, true, living God of Israel had opened the doors of salvation to foreigners.
  • Praying in tongues that don’t make sense to the speaker is not commended or endorsed by Paul (1 Corinthians 14:14).
  • Additionally, not all people have the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:27-30) but no one should forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39).
  • Every time the Holy Spirit fell on a new people group in Acts it was accompanied with the gift of tongues where they used it to praise and worship God [Jews in Judea (Acts 2:1-13), Gentiles in Samaria (Acts 10:44-46)].
  • Whenever tongues is to be used in the church it must be interpreted and if there is no interpreter then the speaker should stay quiet (1 Corinthians 14:25-28). The fact that Paul could command this indicates that tongues was not always an ecstatic utterance but a gift that could be controlled in an orderly fashion.
  • Tongues will cease one day but we don’t know exactly when that will occur because the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us (1 Corinthians 13:8).

There is no biblical reason to support the idea that the gift of tongues is the language of angels. Some have interpreted 1 Corinthians 13:1 to say that tongues can also be seen to be a heavenly angelic language. However, consider the four statements made in verses 1-3:

  1. Speaking in the tongues of men and of angels
  2. Prophetic powers to understand all mysteries and all knowledge
  3. Faith to remove mountains
  4. Giving away all we have and deliver our bodies to be burned

If you accept point i) then you need to accept points ii) – iv) as well because of the structure of the verses. What we know is that the gift of prophecy within 1 Corinthians 12-14 was considered to be fallible, and so it does not make sense to see prophecy as being the understanding of all mysteries and knowledge. We also know that giving does not mean we need to give our bodies to be burned. What is going on here? Paul is using hyperbole to accentuate the meaninglessness of living without love. The point is that tongues, prophecy, faith and generosity are useless without love.

In our context, tongues is the verbal praise and worship of God in another language. It can edify those who hear it, and those who speak it, but its primary function is to act as a sign to Jewish unbelievers that God’s salvation has been given to all people. In a church setting if we speak in another language it must be interpreted, so if there is no interpreter we should seek to speak in the language that most people will be able to understand. If a person believes they have been given the gift of tongues but doesn’t know the language then they should seek an interpreter. If they have never had their utterances understood by other people, or an interpreter, then they have no reason to believe that they can speak in tongues.

The overarching thrust of Paul is that we should seek understanding in our speech when we gather together as a church (1 Corinthians 14:18-20). If you can speak in a second language, then praising God with that language is speaking in another tongue but remember that the primary purpose of it is to serve as a sign to unbelieving Jews. In our church context, amongst believers, we should seek to speak with understanding to promote the common good, building each other up.

Prophecy

Prophecy is the gift of speaking God’s words through a human mediator. In other words, the prophet is the one who speaks the words of God to people. Throughout the Bible we see this happen in two primary ways: foretelling and forthtelling. Foretelling is the act of speaking about future events (e.g. Isaiah 7:13-17). The fulfilment of these foretold prophetic events is understood to occur progressively throughout the Bible. But, by far, the more common form of prophecy is forthtelling. Forthtelling is the act of God’s present word to people (e.g. Hosea 2:1-8). It is God’s direct communication there and then through a prophet, typically of blessing and of judgement. Even these prophetic words are fulfilled progressively throughout the Bible.

Christians understand that the ultimate fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy is found in Jesus’ person and work (Luke 24:44-49, 2 Corinthians 1:18-20). All of God’s plans and promises ultimately point to who Jesus is and what He has done and will do in the future. It makes complete sense then that John writes in Revelation 19:10 that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. In other words, the ultimate essence of what God’s work through the prophets achieves is to point to Jesus. This coheres with what we see in Hebrews 1:1-4 where we see that the way that God used to speak to His people was through the prophets (and in many other ways) but now He has spoken through Jesus. By testifying to Jesus we are forthtelling God’s word to all people right now and we can also foretell what will happen due to the person and work of Christ. For example, Jesus will one day return to judge the world (Acts 17:29-31).

In our New Testament context, how then is prophecy different from evangelism? Evangelism is the testimony of Jesus to non-Christians for the purposes of calling them to repent and believe the Gospel. Prophecy is the testimony of Jesus to Christians for the purposes of building them up.

We see several other aspects about prophecy in the New Testament context:

  • In a discussion about head coverings, Paul indicates that both men and women can pray and prophesy in the church (1 Corinthians 11:4-5).
  • Prophecy in the church is to be ordered and evaluated (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). This evaluation is to be carried out by men in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), presumably elders.
  • The fact that evaluation is necessary means that not every word that you think is prophecy may, in fact, be prophecy. This is coupled with what we see in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 that all prophecies need to be tested. The point is that in the New Testament we see the notion of fallible prophecy i.e. prophecy that may not be from God.
  • Prophecy can help instruct and encourage God’s people (1 Corinthians 14:31).
  • Unbelievers can hear prophecy and become convicted of the truth of God’s word as they hear the testimony of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
  • A prophet’s authority was never meant to ultimately come from their ability to perform miracles because Jesus predicts that even false prophets will be able to perform ‘great signs and wonders’ (Matthew 24:24). A prophet’s legitimacy is meant to be discerned on the basis of their words and how faithful they are in testifying.
  • In Acts 2:14-21, Peter explains that the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 is being fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The implication is that all Christians will have the ability to prophesy. This may seem unusual at first because 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 strongly suggests that not all Christians are prophets. But we can make sense of this if we distinguish between a gift and an office in the church.
    • Prophecy is a spiritual gift given by the Holy Spirit to believers for the benefit of the church and should be desired by all Christians (1 Corinthians 14:1).
    • A prophet is an office, or specific role, that was unique in the Old Testament and early church. Not everyone was called to be an apostle, or a prophet, or a teacher, as indicated by 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. In fact, we have strong reasons to believe that apostles and prophets, as offices, no longer exist because they were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:19-20), which has now been established.
  • Paul critiqued those who would focus on visions and personal revelations of Christ, calling them unspiritual (Colossians 2:18). A conclusion we should reach is that prophecy is not the same thing as seeing visions.

In our context, we as Christians are prophesying as we speak the words of Christ and point each other to Him in our interactions with each other. This may be a rebuke, an encouragement, or a specific form of application from God’s word that you feel is specifically appropriate for the context you are in or the person you are speaking to. In our church gatherings if someone wants to share something they are to do so in an ordered fashion. All Christians are called to testify to Christ, to Christians and non-Christians. What a privilege! The gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on God’s people invites us to be His representatives in the world. May we do so for the common good and building up of all.

In these last days we can expect real people to perform great miracles while claiming to be prophets, but we must be careful. Jesus Himself predicted that false prophets will quite possibly deceive God’s people with their wonderful works. But let us hold true to the truth of Jesus and how He has been revealed by the Holy Spirit through God’s word.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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  1. I will not address the question of ‘continuationism’ or ‘cessationism’. However, I will say that I believe both positions are flawed because they stem from a deistic understanding of God.