“Tongue-speaking” First Century contrasted with Present Day

by Steven Chan

Someone recently asked this question: “In Acts 2, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in tongues which are actually languages so that the people could understand the message. Why is it that we see today nobody or very few understand the tongues spoken at so-called tongue-speaking sessions, unlike that stated in the bible so that the people could understand the message?”

Let’s examine what the Bible teaches about tongue-speaking in the first century and contrast that with so-called tongue-speaking sessions practised by Charismatic groups today.

1) In the first century, the apostles spoke languages that they had not previously learned but those who spoke those languages could understand what the apostles said.

Acts 2:5-11: “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs–we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

In so-called tongue-speaking sessions today that you may see in some denominational assemblies, you will notice that current day tongue-speaking differs from what you read about in the account recorded in Acts 2:5-11. As correctly noted, today’s so-called tongue-speaking session is NOT the same as that recorded in Acts 2:5-11.

2) The ability to speak in a language that the apostle had not learned before was an empowerment that would facilitate the work of the apostles, i.e. to be witnesses to Christ throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”)

In the account of Acts 2:5-11, we find that although the apostles were all Galileans, they were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in languages that they had not learned before – and therefore they were empowered to preach to those who were from the different countries in the latter’s own languages: “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).

Can one imagine the challenges that the apostles would have faced to evangelize the world if they were not empowered to speak in other languages? On the other hand, as shown in Acts 2, the ability of the apostles to speak in other languages also served to impress upon the unbelievers that indeed these apostles were true servants of God and were speaking the Word of God: “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.”(1 Cor 14:22).

It is interesting that notwithstanding that tongues are for a sign unto unbelievers, today many denominational groups teach that the ability to speak in tongues is an indication of the spirituality of the Christian – and some even say that if one is not able to speak in tongue then one has not received the “full gospel”!!

Today, when one attends a “tongue-speaking” assembly, one will almost certainly see the entire assembly of people “speaking in tongues” all at the same time – and no one understands what is being said. But such was not the case in the first century:

In writing to the Christians in 1 Cor 14:27-28, the apostle Paul instructed thus:

”If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church…”

When asked why ALL the members “speak in tongues” at the same time, the answer often given is that the members are not able to control the Spirit. But the apostle Paul said in 1 Cor 14:32-33 that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets:

“And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”

Clearly, the so-called glossolalia phenomenon (i.e. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines glossolalia as “profuse and often emotionally charged speech that mimics coherent speech but is usually unintelligible to the listener and that is uttered in some states of religious ecstasy”) that one sees in so-called “tongue-speaking” assemblies today do not bear any semblance to “the speaking of other languages” that we read about in Acts 2. They are not the same as that which occurred in the first century whether in purpose or in practice.

3) According to 1 Cor 13:8-11, the empowerment to speak in tongues or languages was a temporary one and would cease:-

”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. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.”

Unger’s Bible Handbook provides a clear explanation of I Cor 13:8-11, as follows:-

”Love is contrasted with the gifts which would be superseded and would cease. 8. They would cease because a time of complete or perfect knowledge and prophecy would come, 9, when the New Testament Scriptures would be completed. The partial revelation through direct inspirational knowledge, prophecy and tongues would then give way to that which is perfect (Greek, “the complete and final thing”), 10, meaning the completed written Scriptures, as the context shows. Paul illustrates the period of the church’s infancy, when it had to depend on piecemeal revelation through special gifts, by the figure of the a child growing into adulthood, 11, and a person seeing himself indistinctly in a metal mirror which reflected only a blurred image, 12. However, faith, hope and especially love would remain and always be necessary, 13, in contrast to impermanent gifts.”

[At Page 640, Merrill F Unger’s Bible Handbook, 1966, Seventh Printing, Nov 1974] Notice the developmental/foundational process of the church:-

i. The church is built on the FOUNDATION of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles:

Eph 2:19-22: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

ii. The apostle Paul said that he laid the foundation for the church (i.e. via the revelation of truth comprising the New Covenant/Testament as facilitated by the Holy Spirit) which is built on Jesus Christ:

1 Cor 3:10-11: “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

The knowledge of the truth as taught by the apostles was made possible through the Holy Spirit and they form the truth that Christians are to build their lives on – i.e. the foundation of truth as revealed through the apostles by the Spirit.

The knowledge of truth was specifically revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles who then prophesy (i.e. speak forth) God’s Word:

Eph 3:2-6: “if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 4 by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5 which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel,”

iii. Since the Foundation has been laid by Jesus and the Apostles (i.e. the teachings delivered by Jesus and the Apostles), today we do not need to lay again the Foundation (i.e. there is no need for new revelation from God). We just need to build our lives upon those teachings that have been revealed through Jesus and the apostles, as they provide the Foundation for the church and for our faith.

Rom 10:17: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

John 20:30-31: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Today, the church is being built upon Jesus and the teachings of the apostles of the first century – the once for all delivered faith. God no longer provide new revelations today because we have the “once for all delivered faith” (Jude 3), the completed New Testament Scriptures, which serves as our guide today.

Therefore, no gifts of tongues or special revelations are required or available today. The gifts of tongues and special revelations have ceased as they have served their temporal purpose during the transitional period when the New Testament Scriptures were being delivered through the apostles of the first century.

4) So, now that we have the New Testament Scriptures “that which is       perfect” will of God (I Cor 13:10), the temporal gifts of special revelations and tongues have ceased – just as the Bible says it would.

It is apparent now “why we see nobody or very few today understand each other tongues in so-called tongue-speaking events, not like those stated in the bible so that the people could understand the message”   The answer is simply because the so-called tongue-speaking glossolalia that is practised by many denominations today is NOT the same as that recorded in the New Testament in the first century. God no longer empowers Christians today to speak in tongues. God’s word said that they were temporary and that they would cease (I Cor 13:10). The temporal gifts ceased when the “perfect” will of God was “once for all delivered” in the New Testament (I Cor 13:10; Jude 3; Rev 22:18-19).