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!