Can Christians Speak With Tongues today?
Many Different Gifts
In this article we want to concentrate on one particular explanation, given by the apostle Paul when writing to the Corinthian believers, in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 to 13.
In this letter he deals with many issues and answers several questions that had been raised by the congregation.
They were a Spirit-filled ecclesia and it was important to use correctly the various gifts that God had given them. The apostle Paul explains quite clearly that though there were many different gifts of the spirit,there is only one Holy Spirit – the Spirit, or power, of the Lord God:
“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
He then likens the believers to a body which can only function when all its individual parts are in proper working order. The foot, the hand, the ear and the eye all need to cooperate, otherwise the result will be chaotic (12:12-17). And, he says, it was the same with the ecclesia at Corinth. God had given them various gifts, and they had to use them properly if the congregation was to be effective. No one gift was more important than any other. In verses 8-10 he gives a list of those different gifts:
“For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues”.
Notice that the ‘gift of tongues’ is lower down in the list of priorities as far as the Spirit gifts were concerned, which is in marked contrast to the way some people regard this gift nowadays – when they confuse it with so-called ecstatic utterance. Each of the various gifts had its proper place and had to be used as God intended. For this was a time when there were few written gospels available, and people relied upon direct communication from apostles, or the Word of God being transmitted through prophets, or inspired teachers.
Not for Ever
As the apostle’s explanation continues he tells the believers that they are living through a time of transition and that things will not always be like this – with direct communication from God. There is, he explains, something better that God has in store. In chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians we have that wonderful dissertation on the vital importance of love in our dealings with one another. Faith and hope are important, he says, but the greatest attribute of all is love. Notice what he then says:
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away” (13:8).
He is telling the Corinthians that the time will come when the gifts of prophecy, tongues and God-given knowledge will cease. Why were these Spirit gifts to disappear? Here is his explanation:
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:9-13).
Notice the key explanation: “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away”; that is, the gifts of the Spirit, will then have served their purpose and will be no longer needed. To what, then, does ‘that which is perfect’ refer? I suggest that it is a reference to the completion of God’s revelation – the New Testament scriptures. When was that process completed? The writing and circulation of the 27 books we now call the “New Testament” was probably complete by the end of the 1st Century. When that had been accomplished, and God’s Word was available in Greek – the common language of the day – there was no further need for the gifts of the spirit: either the gift of prophecy or the ability to speak in foreign languages.
We have already seen in this series that the gifts of the Spirit could only be passed on by the apostles, by the laying on of their hands (see, for example, Acts 8:14-18; 19:6). At the time when God’s Holy Word – the Bible – had been completed, so it could be preserved and passed down to all generations, the apostles would have been dying out. The apostles who alone had the ability to pass them on would have fallen asleep: so the gifts would die out anyway. Also, there would be no need for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to continue. They had served their purpose in spreading the gospel message to all nations, and that work had been completed by the end of the century, by which time Christianity was known about throughout the Greek-speaking world.
We can see therefore that the Bible teaches that the Spirit gift of ‘speaking with tongues’ was the ability to speak in foreign languages. It was a means of preaching in the First century to those who lived in different parts of the Roman Empire. It was only used in the First Century because the opportunity to pass on the gift died when the apostles fell asleep in death.
Furthermore, the spirit gifts were only available whilst the canon of Scripture was being made up. When that had happened there was no need for any Spirit gift at all – the Scriptures would speak for themselves. It is wonderful that, in God’s providence, as the gifts of the spirit passed away, so the Bible became available in all its wonderful completeness.
It follows that there are no gifts of the Spirit nowadays, despite what many other churches suggest. They are not available in the 21st Century at all, for we can now all read the Bible without anyone preventing or hindering us. Let us read and study the Word of God – the Bible – for therein we find the only way to everlasting life.
- David Willey