Gerry Breshears on the nature and purpose of speaking in tongues

GUEST POST by Gerry Breshears

I’m preaching on this passage at Grace on August 15 so I’ve been reading and re-reading and studying a lot. I’m realizing that the view of tongues I’ve held for a long time isn’t the most likely one. So with any change like this, I’m running it by lots of people. Reading the Bible in the community of faith is so important. The more diverse the community, the more likely getting past the mistakes of one.

So I start with the purpose of the gift of tongues. Acts 2:11 says they were declaring the wonders of God. I’d taken that as evangelistic, but on reflection and comparison with 1 Cor., I’m thinking it is praise.

1 Cor. 14 adds these points:

Tongues are to God by the Spirit (2, 28) where prophecy is to other people. That direction is so obvious. I don’t know how I missed it up to now.

Tongues are a language with informational content, not ecstatic babbling as with pagans. This is very clear in Acts 2 but also in his reference in verse 10-11. There is much debate about whether it is human languages or if it can include language of angels. That seems an open handed issue right now.

Tongues edify the speaker (4, 28) where prophecy edify the congregation. I’d always taken that as dismissive of tongues, but I think I was wrong on that. Lots of things build me and it’s good. Col. 2:5, 8 say put off sin and 3:12 says put on fruit of the Spirit. That edifies me so I can be more Christlike and a better member of the community. The error would be self-indulgence, something the Corinthians and not a few Americans are into (!!). Building myself is very good if it helps me be a better Jesus follower.

Paul is quite positive about tongues, just not in the public gathering of the church. I’m not sure how I missed his statement that he would like everyone to speak in tongues (14:5). Yes, prophecy is much preferred in the gathering but that does not mean tongues have no place. He is quite clear that he speaks in tongues a lot (14:18), but not on the gathering. That’s the place for prophecy to strengthen, encourage, comfort, edify, instruct (3,4, 26, 31).

Tongues are for prayer (14:14) from the heart. Of course there is also prayer with the mind, i.e., in a known language. Both are good in their proper place, it seems. Some prefer spirit prayer while others prefer mind prayer. Neither is a higher spirituality, it seems. I think Romans 8:26 speaks to this when it says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” So the groanings there are the Spirit at work helping us when our mind and understanding fail us and we don’t know how to pray. That groaning certainly could come out of my mouth, I think.

Tongues are for praise (14:16) just as they are in Acts 2:11 and 10:46. That isn’t helpful for the congregation unless it is interpreted or explained as Peter did in Acts 2.

In the gathering Paul does not speak in tongues though he does speak a lot, evidently in his private devotions. Where the Corinthians were seeing their public use of tongues as a mark of their high spirituality. Paul shows them that it is a sign, but a sign of God’s judgment on their prideful self-indulgence! Hearing Babylonian in the streets of Jerusalem in 586 BC was a sign that God’s judgment had come to sinful Judah (he quotes Isaiah 28:11 a statement of His judgment in 14:21). Similarly, it is not a blessable thing if unbelievers hear all the confusion of public tongues and walk away thinking the people and their God is crazy.

So I’m thinking the central idea of the gift of tongues is private prayer and praise to God in an unknown language.

That’s what I’m thinking in outline. I’d love to get input!


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on July 29, 2010, in Holy Spirit and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. So I’m thinking the central idea of the gift of tongues is private prayer and praise to God in an unknown language.

    Very concise and reflects my understanding and practice.

  2. My view, very briefly for now…

    * “tongue” simply means “language.”
    * “spirit” is a mistranslation of “breath.”
    * “I speak in tongues more than ye all” should read: “I speak in more languages than any of y’all.”
    * an “unknown tongue” is a language that none present understand – like “Vietnamese.”
    * “interpreting a tongue” is not a supernatural act but rather what an interpreter or translator does at the UN, for example.

    The sign gifts of 1 Cor 12-14 and the offices of Eph 4 ceased to operate after Paul established the new humanity.

  3. I think one thing I’d do differently is to emphasize the gift nature of tongues a bit more. I’ve noticed that when I present the idea that tongues is prayer/praise, many people draw the conclusion that it’s something that anyone can go and do. The gift idea is implicit in what you say about tongues being an “unknown language,” but I’d make it more explicit.

  4. “Paul shows them that it is a sign, but a sign of God’s judgment on their prideful self-indulgence!”

    I’m not sure that it’s best to read this passage as indicating that public, uninterpreted tongues is a judgment on the believing community. Although this would flow well from the passage in Isaiah, Paul’s point here seems to be directed much more toward the negative affect that public, uninterpreted tongues as on unbelievers. So, while I’d agree that the “sign” here has a negative function (i.e. indication of God’s displeasure), it is a sign against unbelievers rather than the church. (He made the point earlier that public uninterpreted tongues is bad for the community, but that doesn’t seem to be his focus here.)

  5. Marc,

    This is true. The gift aspect is very important. I’ve seen where this discussion can go without that distinction!

  6. Having been raised in evangelical (charismatic) churches and spend my whole life there, I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone truly speak in tongues, aside from people (like me) who have done it the hard way — spent years and years actually learning another language.

    On the other hand, your pagan babbling, i.e. “glossolalia”, is in great abundance, with people strutting their nonsense syllables in front of the stage much like the Pharisees once did with their boastful prayers in front of the Temple.

    I’m not saying the potential to spontaneously speak in another language doesn’t exist. I am saying it’s so rare I’ve never seen it for myself, just like I’ve never see anyone instantly healed or raised from the head.

  7. That should be “raised from the dead” — although “raised from the head” is also amusing in its own way, though less miraculous.

  8. Contrary to Paul I have seen it and I have seen it occur in the lives of people who did not have to “learn” it–I being one of those people.

    One of my favorite stories comes from a friend of mine raised in a very John McArthur-ish church (pastor a grad of The Master’s Seminary) who found himself speaking in tongues during a prayer meeting after asking God to give him whatever God would like to give him. He quickly covered his mouth and then hide this gift from the people in his church for years because he knew they believed such things had “ceased”.

    In the year to come he has come to appreciate the validity of this experience as a means of giftedness in his private prayer life. While I know of the scenario that Paul notes above there are many, many other stories across this globe that are not like that.

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 07.30.10 | Near Emmaus

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