Today’s reading: Acts 18-20.
“Should Christians still be speaking in tongues today?”
I don’t have any experience with speaking in tongues. My Christian experience has been in Methodist and Southern Baptist churches that do not practice this spiritual gift. The book of Acts describes it repeatedly, however, and it still plays a big role in some denominations. Let’s look at the expression of speaking in tongues in Acts, in the first years of the church. Later, in Paul’s writings, we’ll see a more developed and structured use of the gift.
The word for tongue can also mean language. Because of convention and usage we talk of speaking in tongues, but we could just as accurately say speaking in languages, which may be closer to the meaning of the gift. When it was first expressed, at Pentecost, the sounds that the believers uttered were actual foreign languages that were understood by the foreign Jews who were present. Many years later, as Paul traveled through Asia Minor, the Holy Spirit came on new believers and they spoke in tongues or languages.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Acts 19:1-6
Here are some of the common elements that accompanied the use of speaking in tongues in the early church:
Tongues came through the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, at Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 10, when the centurion Cornelius and his friends believed, “the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word.” In Acts 19, when Paul baptized the Ephesians, “the Holy Spirit came on them.”
Speaking in tongues came at the first indwelling of the Spirit. In each of the examples in Acts, the gift of tongues came when believers were first filled with the Spirit. At Pentecost it was the first time that the Spirit filled any of the believers. In the case of Cornelius and the Ephesians, it was when new believers were filled with the Spirit.
Tongues gave confirmation of the presence of the Spirit. The gift of tongues acted as a sign, authenticating the change in the believers, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the power of God working through them. It was a sign to the believers themselves and to those around them. It was a witness to unbelievers and a proof to believers of the conversion of new believers.
Tongues magnified God. At Pentecost the foreign Jews heard the wonders of God declared in their own language. When Cornelius was converted, he and his friends magnified God as they spoke in tongues. In Ephesus the gift of tongues was accompanied by prophesy.
Speaking in tongues came without any urging, coaching, or rehearsal. The believers who spoke in tongues had not experienced the gift before. They had not seen it in action, or been told about it. It was a spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit, and appears to have been involuntary.
“Those who know that glossolalia is not God’s path for them and those for whom it is a proven enrichment should neither try to impose their own way on others, nor judge others inferior for being different, nor stagger if someone in their camp transfers to the other, believing that God has led him or her to do so. Those who pray with tongues and those who pray without tongues do it to the Lord; they stand or fall to their own master, not their fellow-servants; and in the same sense that there is in Christ neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, so in Christ there is neither glossolalist nor non-glossolalist.”
― J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God
“Whether these gifts of the Holy Ghost were designed to remain in the Church throughout all ages, and whether or not they will be restored at the nearer approach of the ‘restitution of all things,’ are questions which it is not needful to decide. But it is needful to observe this, that, even in the infancy of the Church, God divided them with a sparing hand. Were all even then Prophets? Were all workers of miracles? Had all the gifts of healing? Did all speak with tongues? No, in no wise. Perhaps not one in a thousand. Probably none but the Teachers in the Church, and only some of them. (1 Corinthians 12:28-30.) It was, therefore, for a more excellent purpose than this, that ‘they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.’ ” – John Wesley, Scriptural Christianity
‘Tongues’ refers to the gift of speech which, though making sounds, and using apparent or even actual languages, somehow bypasses the speaker’s conscious mind. Such speech is experienced as a stream of praise in which, though the speaker may not be able to articulate what precisely is being said, a sense of love for God, of adoration and gratitude, wells up and overflows. It is like a private language of love.” – N.T. Wright
“That’s the essence of the fullness that they received — an overwhelming experience of the greatness of God and a spilling over in courageous, passionate praise and witness. I don’t say the miracle of speaking in other languages is at the heart of the experience because the Spirit fell on the church again in Acts 4:31 and the house was shaken and the fullness came and the passion and boldness was there, but there were no new tongues. Nor were there wind and fire. In other words, God seems to give whatever manifestations he pleases at different times. They are not the essence. The speaking in tongues in Acts has a very definite roll to play. It’s directly connected to the presence of people from all the nations who need to understand the great things the disciples were saying. In other words the miracle of tongues was a demonstration of God’s sovereign power, and it showed that this power promised in Acts 1:8 really was intended to advance the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It was a token that God means for all peoples to understand his greatness and that he is willing to do miracles to make his glory known among the nations. That leaves just one last observation from the text. And it turns out to be a caution to us. In verse 12 the demonstration of God’s power in the miracle of tongues causes amazement and perplexity among everyone. ‘And all were amazed and perplexed.’ But the perplexity gave way to two very different responses. Some seriously asked, ‘What does this mean?’ Others (in verse 13) mocked and leaped to a naturalistic explanation: ‘They are filled with new wine.’ This is the caution: whenever revival comes — whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in extraordinary power — this division happens in the Christian community. Some genuinely inquire as to what this is, and test all things, and hold fast to what is good. Others stand outside and mock and write off the enthusiasm as merely human, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ ” – John Piper