Present Day Tongues – Is it the same as the gift of tongues manifested in the Apostolic Age?

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel— because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:1 9).

Mankind was once united, speaking one language, but God confused their language causing disunity among the nations. However noble the aims of the United Nations may be, the unity they seek is against God’s purposes and will come to nothing while they remain in rebellion to God. God singled out one man, Abraham, from among the nations of the world and said that he would make him into a great nation, and would bless all nations through him, primarily through the Messiah who would be a descendant of Abraham.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1 3).

In Genesis 14:13, Abraham (then still called Abram), is referred to as a Hebrew. We can assume that the language which Abraham spoke among his people in Ur was the root from which the Hebrew language developed. The descendants of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob became known as the Hebrew people. In 2 Kings 18:26, Eliakim asked the field commander of the Assyrian army to address him in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew because he did not want the Hebrew people to be unsettled by the threatening message. (The Assyrian commander disregarded Eliakim’s request and he addressed him in Hebrew.) This shows that there was a clear distinction between Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew people, and Aramaic – the language of the Assyrians. From this account we know that God’s chosen people were of one particular language, Hebrew, by which God spoke through the prophets. Those who spoke other languages were regarded as foreigners. Ezra and Nehemiah were concerned that the Hebrew people who had been exiled and scattered among the nations as a consequence of their sin, had compounded their guilt by wilfully being assimilated among the Gentiles through inter marriage. This assimilation resulted in many Hebrew people forgetting their own language as they began to speak in foreign tongues.

Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves” (Nehemiah 13:23 25).

It is apparent that the distinction between the Hebrew people and the Gentiles was also evident in their language. God spoke to the Hebrew people through the Hebrew prophets as recorded in the calling of the prophet Ezekiel:

“You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel; Not to many peoples 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” (Ezekiel 3:5 6).

It is evident from the Scriptures that a time came when the Hebrew people were exiled and scattered among the nations. They began to speak in the languages of their host nations. God said through the prophet Isaiah that a time would come when he would speak to his people with “foreign lips and strange tongues.” Paul quoted this Scripture to make the point that when a person spoke miraculously in a foreign language as the Spirit enabled them, it was meant as a sign to unbelievers, but even then they would not listen (1 Cor. 14:21). If the Hebrew people heard the believers speaking in foreign languages that neither they nor their listeners could understand, they would think that those believers were “out of their minds” (1 Cor. 14:23), but on the other hand if they heard the gospel presented in what had become their native tongue, spoken by someone who could not normally speak that language, it would be a sign to them that God was speaking to them through “foreign lips and strange tongues” as Isaiah had prophesied.

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 28:11 12).

On the day of Pentecost, almost two thousand years ago, many God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. On that day the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled and God spoke to his people in foreign languages so that everyone heard the gospel in what had become their native language as a result of their dispersion among the nations:

Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:7 12).

Clearly, the believers in Jerusalem who received the promised Holy Spirit, showed evidence of this amazing event by having a miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages that even they did not understand. When they declared the wonders of God in foreign languages that they could not normally speak, it could in no way be distorted or biased by their own understanding – it was God speaking his word through foreign lips. The miraculous ability to speak in a foreign tongue was an indication that the speaker was speaking by the power of God. It is evident from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that many of them showed off their gift of speaking in foreign tongues in their worship gatherings. Paul wrote to these believers to say that their display of this gift, which was given as a sign to unbelievers, was futile and childish if there was no one among them who could translate what was said. The speaker and those who heard would be like foreigners to one another. It seems that the Corinthians elevated themselves in the sight of their fellow believers by demonstrating their “spirituality” through speaking in foreign languages. All that they accomplished was to “build” themselves up in the sight of others so as to appear spiritual, but without enriching either their own understanding or that of the church. For all intents and purposes these believers who spoke in other languages when there was no translator among them, were merely speaking to the air. It would have been better by far if they had spoken five intelligible words that everyone could understand.

Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:9 12).

Many people in the church today teach that “foreign tongues” is a mysterious heavenly “prayer language” which is the evidence that a believer has been baptised with the Holy Spirit. The mystery which surrounds this so called gift of “speaking in tongues” is that it is a powerful form of prayer and those who have not been initiated into it are somewhat spiritually deprived and inadequate. Some regard them as ‘dead’ Christians while others question whether they are even born again. No believer wants to feel that others are given a powerful “prayer language” while they are left to contend with the powers of darkness within the limits of their own understanding. With such coercion many people are persuaded that they too can and ought to receive this “gift” as evidence of having received the full baptism of the Holy Spirit. Paul said that those who spoke in foreign tongues which were neither intelligible to themselves or their hearers, became as foreigners. If one flaunts such “gibberish” as being evidence of spirituality and boasts over the uninitiated, they have fallen into the same error as the believers in the Corinthian church. However, it is doubtful whether the tongues spoken today are in most instances even authentic languages. Someone who deliberately becomes as a foreigner to God’s people, includes themselves among the foreigners to Israel of whom the prophet Isaiah said: “You will see those arrogant people no more, those people of an obscure speech, with their strange, incomprehensible tongue” (Isaiah 33:19).

Jesus said to his disciples that he had much more to say to them but that it was more than what they could presently bear…:

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13).

The evidence of a person being led by the Holy Spirit is that they are being guided into all truth. There is a dilemma within the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in that they claim that speaking in tongues is evidence of being baptised by the Holy Spirit, but many people who “speak in tongues” have been exposed as false teachers, thereby discrediting the so called “evidence of speaking in tongues.” Many have conceded that false doctrines have been taught by some who “speak in tongues.” Even some who follow the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church have claimed to be baptised by the Holy Spirit with the evidence of “speaking in tongues,” yet they have not renounced or repented of their false doctrine. Those who defend the practice of speaking in tongues, despite the obvious unreliability of it being evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, will maintain that there is also a counterfeit manifestation of “tongues.” These people claim that one cannot reject the authentic on account of the counterfeit, but they cannot explain how one is to discern between what is genuine and what is counterfeit, since both are unintelligible. They might suggest that a person whose doctrine is sound has an authentic “gift of tongues,” whereas someone who holds to false doctrines has a counterfeit “gift of tongues.” Of what value then is the evidence of speaking in tongues if further evidence is required – that of sound doctrine, to be the deciding factor of whether a person is truly led by the Holy Spirit? It is on the assumption that the manifestation of tongues is evidence of baptism by the Holy Spirit that so many have been seduced into this movement. Sound doctrine is the only basis for faithfulness and separation from that which has become apostate. (see 1 Timothy 4:1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith… and 2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine… )

No doubt the controversy over speaking in tongues will continue. Many who profess to have the evidence of being baptised in the Holy Spirit by “speaking in tongues,” fail to show that they have God’s approval, which is evident by the extent to which they have departed from sound doctrine. Paul wrote: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Many people will insist that their “speaking in tongues” is authentic and of value, despite the fact that it does not enrich their understanding, nor can they say amen to their own prayers. The apparent unity in the Church through the experience of speaking in tongues is completely superficial and unreliable in light of the many false teachers who claim to have this “gift.” Clearly, the ability to speak in tongues is absolutely no evidence at all of having God’s approval, nor of being led by or filled with the Holy Spirit.

There is no doubt that God spoke miraculously through many people in the early church through gifts of prophecy, tongues and their interpretations. Paul instructed the Corinthian believers that two or three prophets should speak and the others were to weigh carefully what was said (1 Corinthians 14:29). During the ministry of the Apostles, who were laying the foundation of our faith, the word of God had not yet been presented in its fullness, but this is no longer the case. The Apostle Paul said that he was a servant of the gospel, commissioned by God to bring to the church the word of God in its fullness. Paul said the following concerning his apostolic calling to the church: “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness; …” (Colossians 1:25). The canon of Scripture is complete and perfect and not a single word of knowledge, prophecy or interpretation of a foreign tongue can be added to the Scriptures as “new” revelation. Those who protested against the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church rejected the word of the Pope as being in any way authoritative they maintained that the Scriptures were the only authority and that anything added to them should be rejected as false. Those who contend for the faith that has been once for all entrusted to the saints, (Jude 3), prove themselves trustworthy by rejecting any extra biblical teaching as being without authority. The Ephesian Church was commended by Jesus for testing those who claimed to be apostles but were found to be false (Revelation 2:2).

We have the word of God in its fullness, and considering the alarming extent of false doctrine and apostasy in the church, with so many people being enticed and led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Jesus our Messiah, we will do well not to go beyond what is written in the Scriptures. Many peoples’ minds have become dulled and blinded to truth and they are attracted by spiritual experiences and the appearance of miracles rather than to the diligent study of God’s word. There is a false notion, that those who diligently study the Scriptures, by which we are able to distinguish between good and evil, (see Hebrews 5:14 and 6:11), are conservative fundamentalists opposed to the ‘unpredictable’ moving of the Holy Spirit. The delusion that there is some dynamic power through “praying in tongues” entices unsuspecting believers into an empty realm of experiential ‘doctrine’ which is no doctrine at all. Many people who have indeed been changed and born again, through the living and enduring word of God, which has become a reality in their lives through the work of the Holy Spirit, acknowledge that speaking in other languages was a gift of the Spirit, testified to in the Scriptures. It is for this very reason that many are persuaded to speak incoherent and unintelligible utterances in “blind faith” in the belief that it is a return to the fullness of the gifts that were manifested in the early church. This is a denial that the word of God has been revealed in its fullness and requires no further prophetic utterance either in our own tongue or a foreign tongue, whether by a word of knowledge or a word of wisdom.

Those who mature in the faith do not need to be puffed up by vain spiritual experiences. Through maturity, many have realised that the present day “speaking in tongues,” which is held to be the evidence of being filled with the Spirit, is no evidence at all, nor is it of any tangible value.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:8 13).

I firmly believe, according to what Paul wrote: “where there are tongues, they will be stilled” (1 Corinthians 13:8), that tongues were stilled soon after the word of God had been brought in its fullness through the Apostles. The mystery of Jesus the Messiah, which was hidden in previous generations, has been unveiled through the word of God so that we may all know the Lord, who is the Spirit, face to face. Paul wrote concerning his ministry as an apostle of Jesus the Messiah:

“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things” (Ephesians 3:7 9).

Even if many people still deny, (in the face of historical evidence), that tongues were stilled soon after the early church was established, I have witnessed a “stilling” even of the modern day “tongues” among the mature who no longer seek after miraculous and sensational manifestations. Many Christians will testify that as they mature in the faith they pray less in tongues rather than more and spend more time in studying the word of God to build themselves up in the faith. It is not easy to confess to having been led astray into an empty delusion of incomprehensible babbling. It may be embarrassing to acknowledge that when we once thought we were praying the most powerful and effective prayers beyond the realm of our own limited understanding it was merely a vain exercise. I was a believer within the Pentecostal Church for seventeen years, “praying in tongues.” It has been many years now since I gave up praying in tongues, but I have certainly grown in the knowledge of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Messiah. I love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all of my mind and with all my strength. My spiritual worship of God is to no longer conform to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of my mind through constantly meditating upon his word. I exhort everyone to apply themselves to understand his word which is in no way the same as leaning upon your own understanding.

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand what is right and just and fair — every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you. Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse . . . (Proverbs 2:1 11).

It [wisdom] will save you also from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God…[a parable of the harlot, apostate church which seduces believers through ecumenism] (Proverbs 2:16).

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, For she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace (Proverbs 3:13 17).

Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound learning, so do not forsake my teaching. When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he taught me and said, “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honour you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendour.” Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many. I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble (Proverbs 4:1 12).

I challenge that teaching and practice within the church which suggests that if a person “prays in tongues” then they are praying in the Spirit and building themselves up. The Scriptures affirm that we are built up in the faith through hearing and understanding the word of God – Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Those who teach that praying in tongues is praying in the Spirit, also teach that it is by faith that one is required to put aside one’s understanding. Paul wrote: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. 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 mind. I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:13 14).

Charismatics have interpreted this passage to mean that a person may have the ability to pray with their minds in their native language, and with their spirits in a language understood by God alone, but not understood by themselves. People have taken this to imply that on occasion Paul would pray with his spirit, in which case his mind would remain unfruitful, and on other occasions he would pray with his mind. This is the error upon which the whole vanity of “speaking in tongues” has been established. I am convinced that Paul, who had the gift of speaking in foreign languages as the Apostle to the Gentiles, prayed miraculously with his spirit, but applied himself to interpret his prayers so that he prayed with his mind at the same time. That is why he urged the Corinthians to pray that they might interpret what they were saying. He was urging them to combine understanding with their genuine gift of tongues so that it could really edify them. Paul’s teachings certainly imply that a person is not built up in the faith if their minds remain unfruitful. His prayer for the Colossian believers confirms that he firmly taught that faith is established upon understanding the word of God which is spiritually discerned: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, . . .” (Colossians 1:9 10).

Those people who teach that praying in a “heavenly tongue” is praying in the Holy Spirit, draw their erroneous conclusion from the following verse in Jude’s letter: “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).

What then did Jude mean by: “build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit?” First we should note the conjunction ‘and’ rather than ‘by’ in the NIV translation. In the KJV it is also implied. A careless reading leads some people to conclude that we build ourselves up by praying in the Holy Spirit. I believe that praying in the Holy Spirit is not praying in tongues without understanding, but rather praying in harmony with the will and purpose of God as the Holy Spirit reveals it to our understanding. Such harmony with the Spirit comes through hearing and understanding the word of God and bringing ourselves into complete obedience to it. We take every thought captive and make it obedient to God’s will. Often we are engrossed with our own personal needs and pray according to our own circumstances, but by renewing our minds with the word of God and offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God, we can pray in harmony with the Holy Spirit. Jesus said of his disciples that the spirit is willing but that the flesh is weak. Often our own concerns and desires are the weeds that choke the effectiveness of God’s word in our lives and instead of praying in harmony with the Holy Spirit, we end up praying for our own worldly concerns. To pray in the Holy Spirit is to apply ourselves to understand what the Spirit takes from Jesus and makes known to us. It is foolish to suggest that to pray in an unintelligible foreign language, without applying our understanding, is a means towards building us up in the faith. Such teaching is no different to pagan religious superstition which neglects the importance of understanding the word of God. Jesus said: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7). Despite these words of Jesus, it is astonishing that many who claim to pray in tongues, boast of praying for hours in unknown tongues, assuming that their lengthy prayers are most effective, when they do not even know what it is that they are praying. Yet God knows what we need before we even ask him. I am now convinced that the present day practice of “praying in tongues” is nothing but a form of mysticism by which even sincere believers have been deluded. This practice has been established upon the basis of a few Scriptures, taken in isolation and over emphasised. It has become a heresy which has often also resulted in schisms among believers (a heresy by definition is a teaching which is chosen out of context and given undue emphasis beyond the balance of other Scripture – it is not always entirely false).

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path (Matthew 13:19).

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you (John 16:13 15).

I have written this refutation of what is in this present day claimed to be the original “gift of speaking in tongues” as one who as a young Christian was completely taken in by the claims of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. I do this with a sincere love and concern for fellow believers and not to simply criticise a practice held by many believers. “When you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Many people will take strong exception to my challenge on what I believe to be the vanity of “speaking or praying in tongues,” but what I affirm is more powerful by far:

Meditate upon the living and active word of God which is sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12) …and… “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).